If, in the imagination, one could allow for the acceptance that the spiritual world is closer to the earth during this time of the year, (All Hallows’ Eve) then one would hope that the women represented in this afternoon’s Raleigh Camerata performance were hovering about and happy to be included in such a wonderfully inspired program. They certainly deserved it!

It was a perfect fall day in Raleigh as the musicians from Raleigh Camerata casually chatted and laughed (masked) at Western Boulevard Presbyterian Church. The Triangle’s preeminent Early Music ensemble, under the artistic direction of Dr. Kelly Nivison, strolled casually about their historically informed instruments in the warm and welcoming sanctuary of WBPC. There was an enthusiastic full house, albeit socially distanced for the Camerata’s first indoor concert in 2 years. RC had played outdoors this summer during the pandemic (see here, here and here), although it couldn’t have been very satisfying considering the delicacy of the instruments both acoustically and in tuning in North Carolina summer heat!

Getting to the venue was a bit like running the gauntlet as Interstate 4-40 and the Western Boulevard construction is a mess!

This afternoon’s program featured women composers from the Baroque period and as usual, the musicianship and ensemble of these players was world class – they brought their A-game!

The thoroughly engaging program notes by Barbara Norton helped fill out the rich biographies of the six featured but mostly unknown female composers, whose compositional periods ranged from early to late Baroque styles. As explained by Nivison, single women in the 17th and 18th centuries could own land, own a business, and make money…until they got married. In the case of these 6 composers, either because they were in a convent or came from and married wealthy progressive husbands (with the exception perhaps of Anna Bon), they were “allowed” to compose music that arguably rivals that of any the famous male counterparts of their time.

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre‘s (c. 1664-1729) Trio Sonata No. 2 in B-flat is, as Nivison explained, “decidedly Italian with a French accent.” La Guerre’s work is so creative and full of life. She uses compositional techniques that aren’t necessarily thought to be of that era such as the fiery chromaticism in the Allegro e Presto movement. Fine and intelligent musicianship was on display in the lovely back-and-forth between violinists Allison Willet and Matvey Lapin. Cellist Lisa Liske got a turn with the violins in the light and easy interplay.

The music of Rosa Giacinta Badalla (ca. 1660-ca. 1710) brought to the stage British mezzo Tamsin Simmill along with harpsicordist Jennifer Streeter, Nivison playing Baroque recorder, and Baroque guitarist Craig Wiggins. Known primarily for her motets, “O fronde care” is taken from one of the two secular motets Badalla wrote. Simmill sang with ease. Her clean, well-articulated lines were emotive and expressive. One would wish that “O fronde care” would take the place of the standard Baroque fare programmed in recitals. It deserves to be widely known.

Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704) was the first woman to write a sonata (that we know of!). The Sonata Duodecima, Op. 16, written for solo violin and continuo began with Lapin playing an incredibly impassioned Adagio. Wiggins switched to theorbo. The performers communicated intimately through the 5 movements with no breaks. Again, the prolific Leonarda holds her own against any composer regardless of gender.

Streeter then treated the audience to the Sonata da Cembalo in G by Marianne Martinez (1744-1812) on harpsichord. Wow! This work has been compared to that of C.P.E. Bach and has late-Baroque, early-Classical tendency. One could tell from the sparkling Andante Brilliante and especially in the Andante that Martinez was a singer. The entire work is so full of tenderness and light. Ending with the exciting Allegro Assai, Streeter’s playing was clean, precise, emotive and excellent. Her full understanding and love of the music came through in her playing.

There isn’t a whole lot known about Anna Bon di Venezia (b.c.1739). Nivison thinks it is probably because Bon married in 1767 and the support wasn’t there for her to continue her work. This is a regrettable loss because her Divertimento No. 3, Op. 3, is delightful. This trio sonata featured Nivison on Baroque flute. The musicians watched and listened to one another intently, bringing breathtaking beauty to the weaving of lines and varied dynamics between Matvey and Nivison. I especially was taken with the Presto movement – you could hear Bon’s strong will coming through.  

Realizing that these pieces were written by women brought a completely different imagination to the listener, being aware that the woman felt this, were committed and extraordinary in their musical abilities, and just as intelligent and capable as their male counterparts if not more musically interesting. Knowing that they weren’t afforded the same opportunities but created such beauty regardless is a testament to their creative power.

A short but sweet Sonata Quinta, Op. 16 by Leonarda featured tender and precise playing by Willet and with Nivison switching to soprano recorder. The program concluded with “Alla prigione antica” by Maria Teresa Agnese (1720-1795). Nivison had painstakingly transcribed the aria from a faded manuscript. The program notes told us that the aria is about “a bird who has returned to a terrible prison to which it had become accustomed because…its familiarity was less distressing than the uncertainty of new freedom.” (Yet another aria that could be programmed instead of the standard arias of the time period!) With lovely singing by Simmill and excellent ensemble by the Camerata, this was a delightful ending to the program.

I must say that I was distracted and a bit irritated by all of the camera cell phones on display throughout the entire performance. In the daylight of the open and intimate setting, it was very obvious. Perhaps I am old-fashioned but it really stuck out. One would wish that we could just listen, or at least be perhaps a bit more discreet in our capturing of images while a performance is taking place. People think differently about these experiences, I suppose.

Nevertheless, Raleigh Camerata deserves our thanks in bringing the beauty, elegance, and sophistication offered in this musical sharing. I was deeply moved and disturbed by the parallels between the disparities in gender and race in our world today and what happened only four centuries ago. Here we have what somehow came through and we heard the beginnings of what could have been a whole new world of sound, cut short or possibly almost not uncovered, still unknown to most of the cultural world. These women composers bring this ever-so-slight difference to the sound world. It’s magical. Equal but better.

Nivison shared the news that the formation of a new HIP Romantic trio is happening and will premiere this summer as a part of a house concert for donors. More exciting concert work will be coming in the early new year, so watch this space to find out what Raleigh Camerata is up to! Thanks to the group for always bring excellent and interesting programming to us.