La Donna Musicale

Still no pictures on account of a broken phone at the time.

But here's a description of a wonderful concert by an incredible ensemble. Read at the Boston Music Intelligencer, or below.

Saturday March 25, I had the pleasure of hearing the internationally acclaimed Boston-based ensemble, La Donna Musicale. They specialize in discovering, preserving, and promoting music by women composers from the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and contemporary periods. Their recent concert, All Around Love, was given at the United Parish in Brookline and featured works from the 17th and 18th centuries. Their use of period instruments and historically-informed performance practice, along with expert musicianship and sincere passion created a transcendental atmosphere, in which one felt transported to past centuries, or visited by the spirits of those long-gone, nearly forgotten artists.

An uplifting excerpt from Francesca Caccini’s La liberazione di Ruggiero opened the program. Accompanied by mute cornetto, viola da gamba, harpsichord and violin, mezzo soprano Daniela Tošić and soprano Camila Parias sang lilting melodies filled with praises of love: “Noble Ruggiero, Love’s warrior, well may you call yourself blessed.”

Next was an excerpt from Camilla de Rossi’s cantata, Frá Dori e Fileno. A passionate dialogue between two lovers, it showcased the complimentary qualities in both singers: Tošić’s voluptuous timbre paired sensually with Parias’ light, clear tone. Laury Gutiérrez, La Donna’s founding director and viola da gamba player, explained that Frá Dori was unpublished and had to be unearthed from manuscript in order to be performed. Nathaniel Cox traded his mute cornetto for a theorbo as the lovers sang: “What unity great beauty has with great fidelity.” Unlike Caccini, there is not much known about de Rossi, other than that she lived in the very early 18th century.

I Baci (Kisses) by Barbara Strozzi followed, putting a spell over all present with its incantation-like poetry and music: “..with a kiss souls make great wounds occur in hearts.” Isabella Leonarda’s Sonata quinta scored for viola da gamba, harpsichord, cornetto, and violin came next.The ensemble’s passionate, seamless playing filled the quaint chapel room with a historical faithfulness that made us feel like we were in a palazzo in the late 17th century, hearing the finest court musicians of the day. 

Ushering in the darker sentiments of love was Strozzi’s serenata, Hor che Apollo from Arie, Op. 8, 1664: “…if you are sorry that I am in pain be less cruel or be less beautiful.” This twelve-minute piece was originally written for soprano, but transposed to suit Tošić’s bewitching mezzo. Following this was aria adagio, Habbi pietà di me and Mi basta cosi from Antonia Bembo’s Produzioni armoniche, which enveloped us in the sounds of viola da gamba, harpsichord and soprano. The 17th century Venetian left her husband and children for Paris, where she went on to sing and compose in the court of Louis XIV. Parias’ poetic performance left one enamored with these pieces. Finally, Strozzi’s La vendetta (Revenge) from Cantate, ariette, e duetti, 1651 completed the first half of the program. Its lyrics warned: “Revenge is a sweet thing…A woman who is not yet revenged has peace in her mouth and war in her heart!” Once again, Parias gave a splendid performance, leaving the audience on a high note despite the foreboding tone of the song’s words.

The second half of the program featured French pieces, the first being a solo theorbo performance by Nathaniel Cox of Julie Pinel’s Sarabande de Madame Pinel (1675). It was probably the first U.S. performance of the piece, and it set a contemplative mood, deepened then by Pinel’s prayer-like Echos indescrets, taisez vous (Be still, indiscreet echoes). This slow, quiet piece, enchantingly performed by Tošić, entreated: “Do not repeat the name of my beloved. The Gods themselves would be jealous to see my fortune equal to their supreme bliss.” La Donna Musicale has been the first to publish and record Pinel’s music.

Vous partez, belle Iris (You depart, beautiful Iris) by Mademoiselle Herville, published in 1710, followed. Sung by Parias, this lovely song was filled with sadness and sinister hope: “I sense that Love will end my agony, which is less inhumane than your allowing me to die.” Then came excerpts from Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre’s four-movement Violin sonata in D minor, from Sonates pour le viollon et pour le clavecin, 1707. Like Barbara Strozzi, Jacquet de la Guerre was fortunate to have her music published during her lifetime. Both composers came from highly musical families, the latter’s being master harpsichord builders. Her violin sonata revealed an Italian influence in its second and fourth Presto movements, as the French of Louis XIV’s court were more accustomed to slower, elegant phrasing. Violinist Yi-Li Chang played with an avant garde flair and serious acuity rarely found paired in the same classical instrumentalist. Her playing was fluid and engrossing. Dressed all in black and in a leather shirt, she seemed totally unselfconscious— a pleasure to both hear and watch.

Pinel’s Boccages frais (Refreshing woods) then filled the chapel with a melodious duet: “Happy retreat, peaceful exile, in whose every delight I see my lover.” Adding charm, Gutiérrez held her viola da gamba like a guitar, holding and strumming it sideways next to her body. Concluding the romantic, whimsical night was Aux plus heureux Amants, published in 1696 by an anonymous “Mademoiselle.” Gutiérrez explained that women of the aristocracy in that era could not publicly write or publish works because it was considered “beneath” their social rank, and for this reason, Aux plus’ composer remained anonymous. The entire ensemble—along with theorbo—participated in this celebratory song as the singers chanted: “Do you know what renders such a peacefulness in my life? I drink constantly. I have always drunk, I am always drinking, and I shall forever drink.” 

This splendid performance was made even more congenial by an after-show reception complete with hors d’oeuvres and wine. The audience had the opportunity to meet and mingle with the performers, each one of them outstanding in their vocation: Camila Parias, soprano; Daniela Tošić, mezzo-soprano; Yi-Li Change, violin and viola da gamba; Ruth McKay, harpsichord; Nathaniel Cox, theorbo and cornetto; Laury Gutiérrez, viola da gamba. The complete concert experience delivered by La Donna Musicale was made all the richer by Gutiérrez’s engaging, scholarly commentary on individual pieces and composers. This outstanding ensemble is a must see for all music lovers, champions of early music and for those who wish to discover the works of women composers whose stories and music still remain hidden treasures. 

 

Summer II: Jennifer Higdon

I would like to just fill you in on a few things that happened recently so you know what's been going on.

The Cell show with Emma Lavandier and Melinda Faylor was a complete success! The place was filled, we had a !!FANTASTIC!! time performing and acting, and everyone enjoyed good French wine and cheese. The Cell's space is just an absolute pleasure for a performer: it's spacious, elegant, has great lighting, beautiful and FUN props...and the staff is awesome. Thank you to the cell! I can't wait to return to you.

My last show in NY before moving to Somerville, MA (Boston) is on August 5th at Cornelia Street Cafe. 6 pm. I love the staff there, the space is intimate, and the quaint West Village neighborhood makes for an ideal date spot.

I have actually had a few musical outings that I haven't written about, because the summer has been quite busy. Since performing with the Baroque Opera Workshop at the Queens Conservatory, I have for example, had the pleasure of hearing Julianne Baird perform (she was the master teacher at the workshop). This woman is a true treasure. Her angelic voice, agile technique, and giving personality makes her seem like an angel on Earth. I am so fortunate that I had the opportunity to get to know her a little and study Baroque ornamentation with her. I don't know if I've ever met someone in music quite so sweet as her. She's one of these marvels that just happen into your life suddenly and you always remember how special it was.

I hope to write a little more about what it was like hearing her sing. But right now, I'm learning the role of Despina in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, which I will be singing for Susan Morton's Sing Through Central in just under 2 weeks. 

Since I haven't written much this summer on account of the busy-ness of things, I want to share something I've had in my archives for the past year -- My notes on seeing Jennifer Higdon at Opera America. Her interview elucidated what it's like being a contemporary composer, and shed some light on how young and aspiring composers can develop their path. Higdon's first opera, Cold Mountain, premiered last summer in Santa Fe. She's won a Pulitzer Prize for her Violin Concerto, a Grammy for her Percussion Concerto, and has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Pew Fellowship, amongst other prestigious honors.

But I remember her as someone with a refreshing sense of humor and down to earth -- She actually stayed after her interview and talked to the audience one on one over wine.

During her interview, she talked about how for composers, the first 10 years is all about experimenting, composing in different styles, learning the craft: "Little things start to appear over and over, and that becomes your voice." She recommends that it is the artist's job to always push forward, always stretch your abilities, be able to explain why you don't like something: "Build your toolbox by figuring out how to solve musical problems. Listen to as much music as possible - listen to one section and figure out what it is doing, like for instance, just the violin section."

Higdon typically composes 4 to 6 hours a day and  likes to write music that is "useable." She said that music has to be interesting for other people too, because you have to get them to want to play it. On writing opera, she said that the characters live in your head and take on a life of their own. When writing for this medium, she composes 7 to 8 hours a day, and 12 hours on particularly inspired days, writing sequentially.  She explained that writing for orchestra (her custom) is very different from writing opera, especially in the use of the strings, because in opera, the strings are largely there to support the singers and drama on stage, rather than be the leading voice of the action. 

In the future, she hopes to write a chamber opera, and as for that Pulitzer? Higdon says: "Having a Pulitzer attached to your name is like having a moving target glued to you."

Jennifer teaches composition at Curtis in Philadelphia. Check out the video of her Opera America interview here.

Summer!

So I'm currently in Queens doing the Baroque Opera Workshop with Julianne Baird, Christa Patton, David Ronis, and Antonio Fava at the Aaron Copland School of Music. I'm singing in a Lully production, and am loving this experience. I will write a post about it later on when I get a moment to focus on the written word -- but I also want to add that I just completed the 3-week New England Opera Intensive up in Boston, where I was part of an operatic scenes performance at Berklee's David Friend Hall. This was also a fantastic experience, something about which I will write more about after this busy month quiets down.

On another French note (puns intended!), on Friday, June 24th, I am doing a show with my friend, Emma Lavendier, at the cell theatre, 338 W 23rd St, between 8th and 9th Avenues in Manhattan. We are teaming up for a special program of French musical literature which will feature Offenbach's famous Barcarolle, the Flower Duet from Delibes's Lakmé, melodies by Hector Berlioz and Reynaldo Hahn, some hidden gems by Cécile Chaminade, and more. My friend, Brooklyn-based composer and pianist Melinda Faylor, accompanies.

Tickets for the June 24th concert, are $20 for adults, $10 for students and seniors, and free for children under the age of 10, and can be reserved by calling The Cell Theatre at (646) 861-2253 or visiting the events page on http://www.thecelltheatre.org.