“The City of Women” journeyed beyond Calderwood’s expected Sunday afternoon callings with mostly young musicians looking relaxed in street clothes, mostly young women creating and performing, and mostly locals—if not all—appearing for the first time at the Gardner Museum.
This first-of-a-kind presentation sprang from Helga Davis, Gardner’s guest curator, who “is a vocalist and performance artist with feet planted on the prestigious international stages and with firm roots in the realities and concerns of her local community.”
On this Gardner Sunday scene, the orchestral musicians dubbed “Isabella Ensemble” had been drawn from Boston’s rich pool of talent: The Handel and Haydn Society Young Women’s Chamber Choir, and Oompa, a graduate of East Boston High. Alongside out-of-towners, they altered ways of long-standing tradition at the venerable venue.
Davis emceed the comfortable-feeling show-seminar mix, welcoming the multitude of listeners and the participants. She would ask the young performers what it meant to be performing at the Gardner Museum and their responses spoke mountains. She declaimed through a musical lens Mary Oliver’s “The Journey.” Throughout the afternoon, Davis focused our attention on planting seeds for a better community.
In a truly amazing way, singer-songwriter Be Steadwell from Washington D.C. joined different spheres. Steadwell transformed Che si può (What can I do?) composed by Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) with looping, vocal layering, and beat boxing. The aria of love beautified in a contemporary sonic landscape with haunting harmonies in an ephemeral expression not soon to be forgotten. She acknowledged “I love love songs in my queerness.” For Steadwell, performing at the Gardner meant much, who would have thought this possible she pondered.
Boston-born Oompa wrote and performed the “World Premiere Gardner Museum Commission” On Lucretia. The prizewinning rapper representing the queer, black, orphaned, and hood kids proved speech and music are doubles. Hers is an eloquent, interior-impassioned voice. “We look black and ripe for picking” reckoned the legendary Roman heroine’s story with a city-scape metamorphosis revealing her own struggles. Simple, innocent three-tone chanting at beginning and ending lifted all disbelief. Before this engagement, Oompa “never knew the Gardner existed.”
Young Courtney Bryan’s “Yet Unheard” (in memory of Sandra Bland) commemorates Sandra Bland’s tragic death in police custody in 2013. For voice, chorus, and orchestra, the work “seeks answers to painful questions too long unasked.” Helga Davis did what she could do—all in an unimaginable and magnificent four-octave range— with the episodic score. Sliding strings wailed believably at the opening and thereafter promising moments lit up the score. A Westernized movie-like current entangled with the vernacular text of Sharon Strange. Not everything jelled in Calderwood, overall shaping and balance in particular
The young a cappella H + H warmed the fauxbourdon leanings in “Warrior” of Kim Baryluk.
Shelby Felton from Brooklyn, aka Shellz, danced to Davis’s readings and to “Illumination” from Transitions, a 1985 score from the American, Gloria Coates. This large tapestry pared down for chamber strings, winds, trombone, piano, and percussion shadowed Dido’s lament from Purcell’s opera. The Isabella Ensemble’s searing playing for the no-let-up ghastliness of the Coates’ piece registered thoughts of painter Francis Bacon’s raw, emotionally charged images.
Shellz explained to Davis that her roots are in “flexing,” a Brooklyn movement borne out of Jamaica. “I am a piece of work,” she answered Davis’s question about the venue, and the audience loved it! It was an “honor” for her to be at the Gardner, she never thought that could have happened.
Under conductor George Steel, The Isabella Ensemble wielded orchestral spiraling, swirling motion and the H + H youth along with adult voices put forth rock-hard declamations in Kate Whitley’s “Speak Out.” Optimism and rhythmic vitality, largely absent until now, rousingly reset the program’s trajectory.