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 Laury Gutiérrez, La Donna’s founding director and viola da gamba player, explained that Frá Dori was unpublished and had to be unearthed from manuscript in order to be performed.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.