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Isabella, a new vocal ensemble consisting of three sopranos and two mezzos, led by Mary Lycan, made its debut in Person Recital Hall at UNC on the afternoon of October 19. It is the latest and perhaps most innovative venture to date in the director's distinguished career, during which she has increasingly championed music by and for women's voices. Person is a small, bright hall, and at times even the five vocalists sounded unduly loud, occasionally bordering on stridency. The singers are all exceptionally fine - sopranos Laurie Siegel, Anna Kirby, and Ellen Markus, and mezzo-sopranos Tamsin Simmill and Caryl Thomason Price, and singly or together they'd be welcome adjuncts as soloists in any choral program - so it's a safe bet that, over time, their sense of ensemble in the context of Isabella will solidify, and the perception that they are five distinctive soloists will wane. The name, incidentally, comes from Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704), a nun and a prolific composer of over 200 works, many of which were published during her own lifetime.
The concert began with an impressive, florid and immediately appealing mass by Francesco Gasparini (1668-1727). If you don't know his music or his name, you probably haven't spent as much time in libraries as Lycan has. He was born in Lucca and died in Rome, and among his students was Domenico Scarlatti. He was appointed to a major post in Venice in 1701, and that is important to music history and to Lycan because Venice was one of the few places in Christendom - if not the only place - where women were allowed to sing in church services. The Missa sung in Chapel Hill is one of at least ten by Gasparini, and it is, perhaps surprisingly, a richly-varied work that involves the entire ensemble plus solos, duets and trios. The form is standard - there's a Kyrie, a Gloria, a Credo, a Sanctus, and an Agnus Dei - but there are occasional departures from the texts often encountered in musical settings. The singers were accompanied here (and in the first post-intermission work) by cellist Leslie Alperin and organist Jane Lynch. Overall, the Gasparini Mass is a substantial work - the Gloria lasts about fifteen minutes, and the Credo is nearly as long. In Person Hall, it was the varied writing and the outstanding vocalism, and Lycan's obvious commitment and involvement in the music, that kept the considerable audience (given that Person is not a large space) engaged from start to finish. As a concert performance, one might quibble with the applause that greeted the ends of the first three sections, and the director's comments, too, while the singers sat for brief breathers. In a church setting, however, one would find the music broken up, too, by various readings, sermons, prayers, and such.
After the intermission came a comparably impressive work by Isabella Leonarda - her Paremus nos, fideles . It is a somewhat lengthy laundry list of exhortations, presumably directed in part at the singers themselves and their cloister-mates, that ended with four refreshingly down-to-earth lines: "Wash the dirty, water the parched, / heal the wounded, bend the inflexible / and straighten that which is errant, / and give us perpetual comfort. Amen." Chances are above average that subsequent concerts by this new group will exhume more music by its namesake.
After that, things took a decidedly secular turn. Three canzonets by Thomas Morley addressed perpetual comfort of a more terrestrial variety, evoking memories of old Lps (remember them?) by Ed McCurdy, from the series titled "When Dalliance was in Flower [and Maidens Lost Their Head]." One of two lovely partsongs by Schumann evoked other images of sometimes less-than-ideal womanhood - the first dealt with sirens luring sailors onto the rocks. Three poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, set by Gustav Holst, dealt with longing and separation, and the program's conclusion, "In Heaven It Is Aways Autumn," by Holst's daughter Imogen, brought us full circle, for it was a setting of part of a sermon, preached by John Donne in 1624.
As always where Lycan is involved - she also directs Women's Voices Chorus, of course - the program included texts and translations, admirably arrayed to avoid page-turns during the music. She gave oral program notes on this occasion. Next time - and surely there will be a "next time" - one might hope for a somewhat less harsh venue, but in any event Isabella occupies a unique niche in our region's musical life, and its arrival on the scene here is worthy of celebration.