Last night at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Voices of Music presented its first concert in San Francisco in its 2019–2020 season. The title of the program was Concerto delle Donne (consort of women), named after an ensemble of women singers that Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, assembled to perform for his court in July of 1584. That occasion was honored as part of the Voices of Music Women in Music Project, presenting the works of Italian composers active during the seventeenth century.
Consistent with the occasion, last night’s performers were almost entirely female, the one exception being co-director David Tayler alternating between archlute and guitar. The other performers included Tayler’s co-director Hanneke van Proosdij, both playing recorder and providing continuo on harpsichord and organ, Elisabeth Reed, rounding out continuo on gamba, violinists Elizabeth Blumenstock and Alana Youssefian, and sopranos Sophie Junker and Sherezade Panthaki. Over the course of the evening, these musicians joined together in a diversity of combinations.
The program was organized in four sets, only the last of which focused on a single composer, Claudio Monteverdi. The only female composer of the evening was Barbara Strozzi, three of whose songs were framed by instrumental selections by Marco Uccellini. Similarly, the opening set alternated the instrumental music of Salomone Rossi with vocal selections by Luzzasco Luzzaschi, two arias and one duet. The third set focused entirely on instrumental works by Giovanni Battista Fontana and Dario Castello.
Peter Paul Rubens’ portrait of Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, whose support enabled one of last night’s Monteverdi selections (from the Villa Perdomini collection, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
My guess is that most, if not all, of the selections were unfamiliar to most of the audience. Those familiar with Monteverdi madrigals may have recognized the final selection, “Chiome d’oro” (golden tresses), from the seventh book of madrigals. Those interested in his earlier efforts might have recognized “Damigella tutta bella” (pretty woman) from the Scherzi musicali, which may have been composed for the entertainment of guests when Monteverdi was the service of the Duke of Mantua at the time, Vincenzo I. Both of these were vocal duets performed at the very end of the evening by the entire ensemble. Both Junker and Panthaki served up a lively account of the text, volleying their own intimate exchanges within the rich context of the instrumental ensemble. These selections were preceded by Panthaki’s solo account of the “Laudate Dominum” Psalm setting from Monteverdi’s Selva morale e spirituale (moral and spiritual forest) collection, presenting the sacred side of Monteverdi in Venice before indulging in secular Mantua.
Those familiar with Ottorino Respighi’s three Ancient Airs and Dances suites would probably also have recognized the “Bergamasca” tune, whose 1650 arrangement by Bernardo Gianoncelli concluded the second of the suites. This was presented in the version taken from Uccellini’s Opus 3 collection Sonate, arie et correnti. Uccellini’s version was one of the several offerings composed for two violins, allowing for a generous serving of playful give-and-take between Blumenstock and Youssefian. Even more engaging were the exchanges that emerged when these violinists performed a sonata selection by Castello, a composer distinguished by the fact that we know almost nothing about him (as Robert Mealy once put it during a master class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music).
Thus, lack of familiarity did not make any of last night’s selections less engaging. All of the performances were consistently rich and expressive, with continuo support that always attentively followed every mood shift. As a whole the program was a generous serving, lasting over two hours; but the engagement was so consistently riveting that clock time rarely signified to the attentive listener.