in: Reviews

May 18, 2013

Mostly Baroque Music by Women

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I went to Friday night’s concert by La Donna Musicale hoping to hear some unfamiliar music. I did, although I’m afraid that what I heard did not add up to a particularly interesting or even a coherent program. The first half of the program, “Shades of Death and Alleluia,” consisted of chiefly vocal works by 17th-century composers. The second comprised mostly recent compositions, two of them serious, but it trailed off into a series of arrangements that were at best entertaining. First presented last night, on May 18th in Lindsey Chapel at Emmanuel Church, Boston.

La Donna Musicale, founded and directed by viola da gambist Laury Gutierrez, specializes in Baroque music by women composers, of whom about eight were represented on this program. The most famous of these, the Venetian composer Barbara Strozzi, provided the two opening works, taken from her rarely heard first publication, a book of madrigals issued in 1644. Modeled on the late madrigals of Monteverdi, these were sung capably by Camila Parias, Daniela Tosic, and Harris Ipock. Yet the acoustics of First Church, Cambridge, where the concert took place, played havoc with the projection of the words, as was true throughout the evening. Only occasionally did Strozzi’s careful musical rhetoric come across, although in the second work, the sonnet “L’amante modesto,” the failure to project the words with full intensity must also be attributed to the decision to substitute viola da gambas for two of the five original vocal parts.

Gutierrez, in spoken remarks that alternated with the music, repeatedly referred to the free substitution of voices by instruments, which she said was a common Baroque practice. Perhaps it was—but it is not always a desirable one. Here, as in the closing work on the first half of the program, a Magnificat by Isabella Leonarda, the lack of a vocal ensemble adequate to the music rather weakened the effect.

Leonarda, like Strozzi, was a prolific seventeenth-century Italian composer of vocal music, but there the parallels end. Strozzi may not have officially been a courtesan, but she was no nun, unlike Leonarda and several other composers on the program. More to the point, Strozzi was a brilliant and imaginative composer, whereas Leonarda’s Magnificat, as well as a trio sonata that preceded it, are relatively conventional pieces. They were not helped by fairly workaday performances. Yet Leonarda’s music surpasses the pedestrian works offered by several other composers, including Vittoria and Raffaella Aleotti. These, despite the different dates given for them in the program were probably different names for the same person, before and after she entered a convent. The problem with performing music by Aleotti, or that of Chiara Cozzolani and Isabella Vizzana, is that compositions which barely rise above the level of student work can hardly inspire either performers or audiences, at least when performed without the type of improvisational vocal virtuosity that was expected in the 17th century but was in short supply tonight.

Leonarda’s sonata, played with flute replacing one of the two original violin parts, gained some needed color from this admittedly anachronistic instrumentation. Yet constant tampering with instrumentation was a distraction throughout the evening, not only in the fashionable use of a small continuo “orchestra” but in the continual switching between bowed and pizzicato playing by the viola da gamba. Perhaps the latter was meant to imitate the sound of a lute, but as in so many modern performance of early music, the unhistorical expansion of the continuo accompaniment, originally limited to a single plucked instrument or keyboard, is a contemporary equivalent of Respighi’s or Stokowski’s overblown orchestrations of old classics.

For this listener the most interesting music came at the opening of the second half, which began with a brief “Elegy and Passacaglia” by the Georgia composer Martha Bishop. According to a program note, the 1987 work was composed in memory of Leo Traynor, an American officer who helped found the Viola da Gamba Society of Japan after World War II and was an advocate of new music for this old instrument. (The present reviewer once served on the jury for the Leo M. Traynor Composition Competition for new music for viols.) Scored for viola (the regular type) and two gambas, the work alludes to but by no means imitates 17th-century chamber music. The Elegy makes effective use of its rather dour instrumentation in sonorous, mildly dissonant chords. The Passacaglia, written over a recurring chromatic bass line, seems a bit more derivative; certainly it is more clearly tonal.

It was unclear from the information provided when Ruth Lomon composed her six “Songs From a Requiem” or how the arrangement heard tonight is related to a 1982 version for voice and piano. Sung beautifully by male soprano Robert Crowe with an ensemble of Baroque flute and strings, the music is an attractive essay in what might be called post-expressionism, occasionally reminiscent of Schoenberg or Webern and certainly sharing their concision. Long associated with Brandeis University, the composer is also the author of the six poems set here. These border on the pretentious, but the settings do not, and their predominantly quiet chamber-music character was well suited to the “early” instruments heard tonight. These were well played, despite their being used in an idiom that is much more at home on “modern” instruments.

Guttierez described the final segment of the program as a “sneak preview” of what will apparently be a concert for children. Indeed, the audience, who appeared mostly to be well over 50, was invited to play the role of children by making percussion sounds during the final offering. This reviewer recalls once being asked to do much the same as a child, while attending a concert performance of Leopold Mozart’s “Toy” Symphony, and finding it just as distasteful then as now. Is it curmudgeonly to object that, however entertaining some may find this sort of audience participation, it is out of place on a program that promised a serious exploration of neglected music? It did not help that Diana Sáez’s concluding “Plena” was, to these ears, a repetitive and rather tame take-off on a type of Puerto Rican traditional song.

Possibly the last few selections would have made a stronger impression had they been accompanied by clearer descriptions and a clearer explanation of how they fit into the program as a whole. Alas, the off-the-cuff verbal remarks were not as helpful as they might have been. A comment about the program booklet is in order, too. While grateful for the inclusion of all the vocal texts, with translations, one could hardly have guessed from its faulty layout that the second of the poems set by Strozzi was a sonnet—an important consideration, given the faithfulness with which her music reflects the form of the poem.

Is there still a need for concerts such as this one: a grab-bag of music that happens to be (mostly) by women, performed by an ensemble that is neither precisely historical nor entirely adequate for most of it? At least the music of Strozzi and Leonarda merits more focused attention than it received here It would be a shame if listeners went away thinking that these two are merely members of a group of composers whose works were performed tonight because they happened to have been women.

David Schulenberg is a harpsichordist and author of Music of the Baroque and The Keyboard Music of J. S. Bach. He teaches at Wagner College in New York City. His website is here.

1 Comment

  1. I differ with Mr. Schulenberg’s fusty opinions of La Donna Musicale’s concert (except that I agree that the acoustic of First Church (Congregational), Cambridge is problematic; that will be remedied in Lindsay Chapel tonight). For instance, the use of a flute and violin instead of two violins, in the sonata by Isabella Leonarda, to my ear, made the interaction of these two parts much more distinct than if they were performed by two instruments of the same timbre. And Mr. Schulenberg states that Ruth Lomon’s poetry (performed in her settings of “Songs from a Requiem”) “border on the pretentious.” Isn’t that another way of calling them profound? Which is what I would call them, adding evocative as well.

    Comment by Liane Curtis — May 18, 2013 at 3:15 pm

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