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Ah, music with pure voices, mystical harmonies, sustained tones and sweet dissonances! The appeal of a small group of women's voices is attested to by the popularity of such groups as Anonymous 4, Sequentia and many others. On Sunday afternoon, October 24, Isabella proclaimed to a modest crowd at University United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill - and hopefully to a larger audience, as word gets out - that they have arrived on the scene. Singing their second annual concert (just two are carry-overs from last year's five voices) they provided a varied and excellent program. Kudos to director Mary Lycan and her bloodhound-like ability to track down and secure really special music for women's voices.
The six singers - Gloria Cabada-Lemon, Lesley Curtis, Ellen Markus, Tamsin Simmill, Patricia Warren, and Carole Whittington - performed in duets, trios, quartets, and sextets. Emily Laurance provided magical harp accompaniment for several selections. Jane Lynch's organ continuo and accompaniment was, as always, flawless; her understanding and mastery, especially of the Italian early baroque era, is superior. Added to this was Timothy Holley's warm and sensitive cello. Despite a couple of ensemble glitches and one or two hardly noticeable intonation problems in the voices, the program provided variety, spiritual nourishment, entertainment and plenty to soothe jangled nerves or trampled spirits.
The opener was a Magnificat by Swedish composer Agneta Sköld. It is a jewel of tonal color, delicious sounds and rich harmonies. Scored for harp, cello and women's voices, it has the flavor of André Caplet about it - even with references to Gregorian and renaissance sources, it is impressionistic in spirit. The instruments were used as a perfect complement to the women's voices, and the overall effect was ethereal and heavenly. The first four verses were sung in Latin, and from the words "He hath put down the mighty from their seats..." to the end it was sung in English. The blend in this selection was a special treat, and it is to be hoped that it will be served up again before too long.
The second selection, performed by Simmill and Warren with harp, organ and cello, was a perfect extension of the concert opener. "Ther is no rose of swych virtu" is an anonymous English carol from the 15th century, coming down to us in its Middle English (Chaucerian) form. Benjamin Britten used it in his Ceremony of Carols , and it pops up in several arrangements. The unusual, unforgettable melody (those wonderful major-sevenths!) perfectly captured the timeless text. The women's voices were as finely tuned as chimes heard in the distance and blended with the gentle accompaniment like snow falling in a quiet village.
Katherine Dienes, born in New Zealand in 1970, is now Assistant Organist and Director of the Cathedral Girls' Choir at the Anglican cathedral in Norwich, England. She is a friend of Lycan, and her "Ave Maria" was commissioned by Women's Voices Chorus a few years back. There is no other religious text that draws even close to the wondrous inspiration the Ave Maria has had on composers, great and small, from medieval times to yesterday. Bear witness to the works by Josquin, Schubert, Gounod, Verdi, Bruckner, Poulenc, Biebl, and many more. This one belongs right up there with the others. Sung a cappella by Whittington, Cabada-Leman, Markus and Curtis, it was mesmerizing and extraordinary. It is one of those pieces of music that almost make you forget to breathe, for it is itself a breath from heaven.
A slightly different quartet (Curtis, Simmill, Cabada-Lemon and Warren) sang the fourth selection with organ and cello. "Psallite, superi" is a Marian hymn by Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602-ca.1678). She was a Benedictine nun who lived her entire adult life within the walls of the convent of Santa Radegonda, located across the street from the Milan Cathedral. A contemporary wrote of her: "The nuns of Santa Radegonda of Milan are gifted with such rare and exquisite talents in music that they are acknowledged to be the best singers of Italy. They wear the habits of the order of St. Benedict, but despite their black garb they seem to any listener to be white and melodious swans, who fill hearts with wonder, and rapture.... Among these sisters, Donna Chiara Margarita Cozzolani merits the highest praise for her unusual and excellent nobility of [musical] invention...." And indeed, the six sweet voices of Isabella filled our hearts with wonder and we rapture in their praise.
The second half of the program included songs, madrigals and motets by Cherubini, Monteverdi, Porpora, and Castro, and an extraordinary piece by Robert Schumann. The latter begins "In the ocean's midst a store stands open..." and gets weirder from there, but with striking harmonic treatment and Schumann's musical genius, it becomes a haunting and provocative treasure chest to be opened in the privacy of one's own heart.
It should be said again: we owe Mary Lycan a debt of gratitude for putting this program together, preparing the singers and instrumentalists, and delivering a such a delightful musical treat on this quiet Sunday afternoon.