When it comes to top-ranked choral music conductors in central North Carolina, there are a handful of names that come immediately to mind, and they are, by and large, men’s names.

That isn’t to rule out the “fairer sex” in this traditionally male-dominated field, however.  Quite to the contrary, the Triangle area is enriched by the talents of numerous women on this podium, one of the most visible being Mary Lycan.  Honored locally for her contributions to the medium, Lycan splits her time between her large ensemble Women’s Voices, the N.C. Women’s Choral Festival and, more recently, a smaller baroque ensemble she founded and named Isabella, in recognition of all-but-forgotten Renaissance composer Isabella Leonarda, whose music graced this ensemble’s premiere presentation three years ago.

Isabella normally presents one concert per year, in the fall, and the group’s annual presentation for 2006, titled “Treasures of Italy,” deftly continued Lycan’s programming thread of earlier themed programs consisting of polyphonic choral chamber music for no more than six voices.

Four soloists joined harmoniously this October 21 at University United Methodist Church, presenting singing of the type that makes one repeatedly sit at attention and take notice.  Lycan’s program, neatly divided between composers familiar and un-, gave the four ladies under her tutelage ample opportunity to transport the audience member back in time.  This they did consistently with singing that was largely stylish, easy on the ear, and artfully poised.

This area of vocal production — the flourishes of the 15th and 16th centuries, admittedly an acquired taste for some – is terrifically difficult to articulate with any sense of accuracy.  Sopranos Lesley Curtis and Gloria Cabada-Leman, along with mezzos Tamsin Simmill (co-director of Isabella) and Linda Everhart, had been immaculately prepared for this feat and rarely were at a loss for a stylish flipped note or the most perfectly-groomed hemidemisemiquaver.  Diction was faultless, the body and substance of the various texts was brought vividly to life, and the ensemble sound — from top to bottom — was nearly always supremely in tune.

The ladies — as one might only expect under the most perfect performing circumstances — responded to one another with anticipatory musical attacks and stances that could only be coached but so far.  Lycan is an excellent guide, but she has an acute ear, as well, and managed to handpick four soloists who would readily complement one another’s vocal abilities.  Whether in unison or harmonizing, these voices more than fulfilled Lycan’s uncanny artistic sixth sense.

As already mentioned, there were composers of note to be heard (Monteverdi, Palestrina, Verdi, Cherubini) and others whose names meant little but nonetheless promised enough, presumably, to warrant inclusion on the program.

Amongst these were two women, one Chiara Cozzolani and also Maria Nascinbeni, not only musicians at a time when women were discouraged from theatrical and other artistic pursuits, but nuns, to boot.  It was appropriate to hear their contributions on this afternoon’s program, insofar as they were mostly revelatory.  Voices soaring nimbly into the auditorium, the soloists — accompanied at points throughout by harpsichordist Jane Lynch and cellist Stephanie Vial — intoned these religious texts, paeans to the Virgin and to Christ, with ardor and graceful abandon.

Other highlights, certainly, and far different from the solitary musings of the female composers just mentioned, were the contributions of two 19th century operatic giants — an excerpt from Verdi’s Quattro pezzi sacri, along with Rossini’s ever-popular “Cat duet.”  Here, in the guise of love-struck serenading felines, Simmill and Cabada-Leman clearly relished the opportunity to let down their hair, relaxing along with the audience and simultaneously sculpting Rossini’s long lines with ease.

Recently chosen to perform at Charleston’s Piccolo Spoleto Festival, Isabella is on an artistic roll. The program notes mentioned a forthcoming CD of highlights from this Italian afternoon, and it should be easy enough to assemble.  Actually, Lycan may find, on re-hearing her master tape, that there is too much fine singing to choose merely a selection or three from.  I would vote for the gorgeous Monteverdi canzoni, the Verdi, the “Ave” by Alessandro Grandi that opened the program; two recently composed French items by Mauro Zuccante, and a 19th century bit of salon music, a barcarolle by an Englishwoman, Faustina Hasse Hodges.

If this isn’t enough, Lycan and company will be back on board shortly with another concert in the guise of her next-largest ensemble, Women’s Voices.  Both it and Isabella are testaments to careful, loving preparation and thorough musicological sleuthing. (See CVNC‘s Triangle calendar or the Women’s Voices series tab for the details.)

The Triangle is the richer for it… all of it.