|Jessica Gould, Elena Biscuolo, Paula Chateauneuf, and Catherine Liddell at|
The Church of St. Francis Xavier
Guest review by Danielle Baty:
Sacred Passions from a Woman Ahead of Her Time
Barbara Stozzi, I Sacri Musicali Affetti
Friday, May 10 2019
The Church of St. Francis Xavier, New York City
Jessica Gould, soprano & Elena Biscuola, mezzo-soprano
Paula Chateauneuf and Catherine Liddell, theorbo
Christa Patton, baroque harp
Katie Rietman, baroque cello
Caitlyn Koester, chamber organ
Presented by Salon/Sanctuary Concerts in collaboration with NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò.
Four hundred years after the birth in Venice of Barbara Strozzi, a virtuoso singer and composer – she was one of a handful of women to publish her own musical works – an all-female ensemble gathered at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Greenwich Village to perform selection’s from Strozzi’s only known volume of sacred repertoire. The “Sacri Musicali Affeti,” published in 1655 and dedicated to the pious Anna de Medici, archduchess of Innsbruck, stands apart from Strozzi’s other compositions, which are concerned with more earthly passions.
It is possible that at this stage in her life, Strozzi, who would have been in her mid-thirties and later gave her two daughters to the Church (a son also became a monk), was becoming more devout. Because she never married and therefore always needed to be mindful of finding financial support, despite the aristocratic origins of her Florentine ancestors, she may also have wanted to draw the attention of potential patrons to her newfound religious devotion.
But as different as this work is from her other compositions in its subject, in other ways it is perfectly aligned with Strozzi’s secular works: the sacred motets showcase her characteristic fire and virtuosity, summoning feelings of ancient, earthly origin that then ascend to magnificent heights. And in addition to Strozzi’s compositional inventiveness we are treated to a particular Venetian quirkiness and exoticism that incorporates the local byzantine elements characteristic of La Serenissima into settings of traditional Catholic texts.
Soprano Jessica Gould and mezzo-soprano Elena Biscuola filled the echoing, cavernous church of St. Francis Xavier with ease. Gould relayed Strozzi’s soaring passions with luminous elegance, and handled the many virtuosic passages and ornamental lines with an agility and clarity one could imagine Strozzi herself might have displayed. Her transcendent instrument was complemented by the sumptuous dark velvet tone of mezzo-soprano Elena Biscuola, who managed her own numerous virtuosic moments with aplomb and whose performance conveyed the profundity and gravitas of Strozzi’s choice of texts.
The two singers were ably accompanied by an ensemble of early music specialists who played with sensitivity and nuance: Paula Chateauneuf and Catherine Liddell on theorbo, Christa Patton on baroque harp, Katie Rietman on baroque cello and Caitlyn Koester on chamber organ.
Visually, the group, with the female performers elevated just slightly above the audience, and Koester raised a little higher in the back and playing standing up, like a priestess come to lead her small flock, created the appearance of calm and strength in the vast sanctuary of St. Francis Xavier. The powerful music of a single mother, composed so long ago, gave a palpable contemporary resonance to a set of obscure religious texts, as Ms. Gould and Ms. Biscuola and the ensemble performed her hauntingly beautiful music so affectingly.
This concert was the tenth season finale of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, an intrepid early music series helmed by Gould herself. Kudos to this organization for its vision in bringing this lesser known repertoire to modern audiences, and hats off to their partners at NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò for broadening awareness of the great Barbara Strozzi, a female composer whose genius dwarfed so many of her male contemporaries, and whose life was so much more than the “courtesan” label with which she has been stamped by male historians.
– Danielle Baty
(c) meche kroop