Last night in Nourse Theater the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) & Chorale presented the latest installment of PBO SESSIONS, produced jointly with Classical KDFC. The title of the offering was Female Composers & the Women Who Bring Their Music to Life, serving as a follow-up to the United States premiere of Sally Beamish’s full-length oratorio The Judas Passion, performed this past Friday evening. Beamish was one of two composers on hand to address the evening’s topic, and she was joined by composer Caroline Shaw. The discussion was moderated by KQED journalist Rachael Myrow and hosted by KDFC’s Dianne Nicolini.
PBO Waverley Fund Music Director Nicholas McGegan prepared a program that included music by both of these composers. However, he chose to begin that program by reaching back to the seventeenth century for one of the earliest instances of a trio sonata. The composer was Isabella Leonarda; and McGegan’s claim that her efforts were as worthy as those of her contemporaries (and my editorializing that some of those contemporaries’ successors could be added to that group) was delightfully substantiated. Leonarda clearly had a keen sense of the possibilities for interplay among two violins (Lisa Weiss and Noah Strick) and a cello (William Skeen); and lutenist Adam Cockerham and organist Hanneke van Proosdij provided the solid support of continuo playing.
However, the focal points of the evening were Beamish and Shaw; and, for the most part, the music spoke far more convincingly than any of the words that were dispensed. Where the latter was concerned, it seemed as if neither Myrow nor Nicolini were particularly prepared. There was even an embarrassing exchange about radio work between these two women while the two composers sat between them in perplexed silence. Fortunately, the music offered more than enough insight regarding the composers’ creative efforts.
All of the performances were vocal, and both composers had been represented in previous PBO offerings. Shaw coupled settings of texts by two poets, Robert Burns (“Red, Red Rose”) and Jacob Polley (“The Rose i”), both sung by contralto Avery Amereau. PBO had given the world premiere of “Red, Red Rose” in May of 2016 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles; and “The Rose i” was sung by Dominique Labelle at this year’s Winter Gala. Both musical settings appeared to involve indeterminacy; and “The Rose i” involved fragmentation of George Frideric Handel’s aria “Lascia ch'io pianga,” whose thematic material was used in several of the composers’ operas. Amereau’s diction went a long way towards establishing the significant relationships between text and music in both of these settings.
Shaw then sang two gospel songs from her own By and By collection, accompanied by a string quartet of Weiss, Strick, Skeen, and violist Ellie Nishi. The accompaniment offered a rich variety of performing techniques for the string players, and it was not hard to enjoy the positive energy they exuded. Shaw’s delivery as a vocalist, alas, lacked Amereau’s qualities of diction. Indeed, she seemed more interested in the visual affectations one finds on the television voice competitions than in the clarity of the text she had chosen to set.
Beamish’s work was quite another matter. In writing for historical instruments, Shaw’s scores always seemed to be grounded in a solid understanding of intonation techniques, which meant that she knew how to make basic tonality go a long way. The Beamish selections from The Judas Passion, on the other hand, were rife with minor seconds. Furthermore, her dissonances were clearly there for a very contemporary take on dramatic tension, rather than as functions of transition or ambiguity that one would have encountered in the pre-Classical periods. Thus, while the vocal lines were delivered with intense clarity by soprano Mary Bevan, tenor Brenden Gunnell, and baritone Roderick Williams, there always seemed to be an environment of somewhat confused uncertainty on the instrumental side. Far more effective was Beamish’s Christmas carol “In the Stillness,” which brought together all four vocalists delivering impeccably clear a cappella singing that reflected as much on Claudio Monteverdi as it did on contemporary rhetoric.