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Isabella consists of two sopranos and two mezzo-sopranos – Lesley Curtis, Gloria Cabada-Leman, Tamsin Simmill, and Linda Everhart. Simmill and Mary Lycan co-direct the ensemble, which is an unincorporated project of Women's Voices Chorus. They sing together in various combinations of two, three, and four voices and make music that charms the most ill-tempered bruin into a teddy bear. The program, heard February 18 in University United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, was repeated the following day at First Presbyterian in Durham after being postponed from last fall. (It has also been learned that Isabella will perform on Saturday, June 10, 2006, at 11:00 a.m., at St. Philips Episcopal Church, 142 Church St., in downtown Charleston, as part of Piccolo Spoleto. This is the more accessible and affordable co-festival running concurrent with the highly regarded Spoleto Festival. Isabella indeed deserves to be heard by a wider audience.)
The first half of their Chapel Hill concert focused on sacred texts and settings, beginning with a Magnificat for Four Voices by English renaissance master John Tavener. It was the most extended work on the program, alternating between unison chant and polyphony and providing a perfect opportunity to display the ethereal blend and tight ensemble the singers have developed. It was a miserable wintry afternoon, but this selection warmed up the chilly sanctuary and the small crowd within it.
"Lullay, lully, on Yoolis night," an anonymous 14th-century carol, was given extra enchantment by Cabada-Leman playing finger cymbals. Benjamin Britten's "Sweet was the song" offered more complex harmonies and support behind Simmill's solo work. A 15th-century carol arranged by Elizabeth Poston offered unison chant with clever organum harmony that again focused the beautiful blend of the four voices.
Two motets by William Byrd, one for three voices and one for four, were separated by a lovely setting of a renaissance text by Gustav Holst. Solo verses alternated between Cabada-Leman and Everhart, with all four voices singing the refrain. The Byrd motets were masterful examples with imitative passages and soaring melismatic polyphony.
In the second half of the program, we were treated to ballads and madrigals by the likes of Weelkes, Morley, Wilbye, and Cornyshe, and 20th-century versions in the same style by Imogen Holst (a lovely arrangement of "Greensleeves" for three voices), Julius Harrison, and John Clements. You know the kind of stuff – the misery of lost love, the longing and the whimsy of the ardent lover, the cleverness of the poet. This part of the program gave the ladies ample opportunity to display another aspect this group has in abundance – sweet and winsome charm.
The program closed with an intricately rhythmical setting of "You spotted snakes" from Act II of A Midsummer Night's Dream by 19th-century English composer George A. Macfarren. It was a delightful afternoon of shimmering sound and pleasant entertainment that brightened the day considerably.