Coro Allegro’s “Baroque Gems” brought precious rarities along with a well-known work to Church of the Covenant last Sunday; the awarding of the ensemble’s seventh annual Daniel Pinkham award, “given annually in [his] memory and in recognition of outstanding contributors to classical choral music and the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities” was central to the event. Laury Gutiérrez, founder and director of La Donna Musicale (also one-time Coro Allegro executive director, and more recently of the director of ensemble RUMBARROCO), was the recipient, and her work was showcased.
The concert began with a rare performance of the psalm “Dixit Dominus” set by Jan Zelenka (1679-1745), born in Bohemia, active as a church musician in Dresden. This gem was mined by doctoral student and former Coro Allegro singer Michael Driscoll, who prepared the performing materials. It begins with a richly layered texture of the psalm tone in the sopranos, with the rest of the choir elaborating in countermelodies. It has five sections, and the second one featured soprano Elizabeth Nelson, new to the Boston scene. Her voice was lustrous and her bearing conveyed great drama. Mezzo Daniela Tošić is a La Donna regular, and she delighted with her burnished and warm sound. Timbres were luscious as voices intertwined. While some of Zelenka’s harmonies take unexpected twists and turns, his melodic writing is often very moving. The moments of wavering intonation (as is often the case with early strings) were very few.
Baritone Harris Ipock, also an impressive presence, built his long, extended phrases with intensity. The choir, energetically led by David Hodgkins, offered sensitive emphasis and interjections, exuding vigorous excitement with the “implebit ruinas” (He shall pile up ruins). The last vocal soloist was tenor Jason McStoots, agile in his ascending figuration as well as expressive. The chorus closed out the psalm with vigor and conviction.
La Donna Musicale began the next segment with a short overture by Maria Teresa Agnesi Pinottini (1720-1795). A child prodigy from a distinguished family (her sister was the noted mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi), Agnesi wrote several operas, two of which employed this ebullient and rousing overture, adding two horns and oboe to strings and organ. (There are no commercial recordings of any of Agnesi’s works for larger ensembles, but you can hear LDM’s performancefrom a 2010 concert) here.
Next came Anna Bon di Venezia’s Offertorium: Ardete Amore with Coro Allegro and La Donna performing together. Gutierrez has done extensive research on Bon, the results of which are on an award-winning CD of 2010 here. Bon (b. 1738) studied in the renowned Ospedale of Venice, then worked as a singer at courts in Bayreuth and Esterhazy. In three sections, Ardete Amore features vocal soloists (Nelson, McStoots, Ipock), with the choir entering in the last section. The style is one of clarity and balance, comparable to many works by her colleague Haydn. Fermatas in the score offered opportunities for the soloists to elaborate, and here I thought there might have been a bit more inventiveness and energy. After all, the text is a fervent one: “burn with love!” I also would have appreciated some discussion of the text in the program note, its theological context, etc. The choir entered to bring the work to a majestic conclusion of an impressive performance, revealing Anna Bon as a significant composer. While some of Bon’s chamber pieces have been recorded, they lack the grandeur and scope of this composition for large ensemble.
Following the award presentation and intermission, Gutiérrez returned with her recently formed ensemble, RUMBARROCO, which fuses Latin American and Spanish folk and popular musics with elements of the Baroque, with a focus on women composers and arrangers. RUMBARROCO featured its own percussionists and string players (guitar and bass). Guardame las vacas – Polo Margariteño”combined Spanish and Venezuelan folk melodies and works based on them in an elaborate and careful arrangement. It began simply, with McStoots and Ipock singing from the back of the church and processing to the front, as accompaniment joined them. The energy built as Latin rhythms were added, then an impassioned percussion solo (featuring the Puerto Rican Zayre Ocasio); the result was spirited and exhilarating.
Next was a sultry rendition of “Besame mucho,” featuring Tošić, with Ipock harmonizing and offering countermelodies. The best-known song by Consuelo Velázquez made me curious to hear some of her other music. After a languid initial statement, the instruments commenced a fervent break whose driving syncopations continued when the voices reentered. This arrangement by Esther Rojas was a fresh and magical take on a lovely standard.
“And now for something completely different” was the transitional thought occurring to me as the choir reentered for Bach’s solemn motet Jesu meine freude. But that was fine, as a refreshingly original conceit. We have gotten used to Baroque ensembles using a small number of voices, and this can present challenges when a larger ensemble (Coro Allegro being about 40 singers) takes on Bach. We expect nimbleness and sensitivity, and under Hodgkins’s guidance the choir gave a vivid and persuasive reading. Flexibility helps in keeping the repetitions of the chorale varied—the strophic framework risks becoming monotonous, but in a lively reading of the text, the work unfolds in a fresh and compelling manner. Many of the devices Bach uses, the architectural structure of the work and the vivid imagery conveyed through word painting, were discussed in the note by Yoshi Campbell, as were the theological context and emotional import of the sections. This powerful work concluded the concert with a focus of the shining abilities of the choir and their close working relationship with longstanding director Hodgkins.
In my long history with both Coro Allegro and La Donna Musicale, I have been impressed by their missions and excellence, thus expectations of journalistic objectivity need to be tempered: it was a beautiful event, carefully structured, evocatively performed, and celebratory.
Raising the visibility of the creative accomplishments of historic women is a step that enhances the status of all women (whatever their persuasions). In our musical past, compositions by women have been so hidden or neglected that a vast amount of recovery work is called for, and that step is of course necessary for recognizing the achievements of lesbians. Gutiérrez is the first lesbian to receive the Pinkham award. With her ensemble, La Donna Musicale, she has rediscovered many important women composers of the Baroque and Classical eras and, through concerts, tours, broadcasts, residencies, and four recordings, has brought them to light locally, nationally and internationally. That is truly something to celebrate.