Antonio Vivaldi originally wrote most of his compositions to be premiered by the all-female instrumentalists and singers under his instruction. Now, Northwest Baroque Masterworks Project has assembled an all-female orchestra and chorus to perform some of the composer’s pieces.
The only thing missing from a pair of historically informed concerts of Antonio Vivaldi concertos and sacred vocal works on Dec. 19 and 21 in Seattle will be wrought-iron screens.
Vivaldi taught music to girls and young women, off and on, between 1703 and 1740 at the Ospedale della Pieta — a convent, orphanage and music school in Venice, Italy. He originally wrote most of his influential Baroque compositions to be premiered by the all-female instrumentalists and singers under his superb instruction. These musicians developed a reputation throughout Europe as a particularly fine ensemble, and indeed, the Pieta’s concert hall was a Sunday destination for appreciative tourists and patrons.
The only catch was that the chorus (though not the orchestra) had to perform behind those aforementioned screens, obscuring the women’s faces, per rules of the nunnery.
“Venetian Women: Vivaldi’s ‘”Gloria” and “Magnificat,”
Presented by Northwest Baroque Masterworks Project. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 19 at Bastyr University Chapel, Seattle; and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 21 at Seattle First Baptist Church. $20-$45 (earlymusicseattle.org)
That was then. When Northwest Baroque Masterworks Project presents two concerts of “Venetian Women: Vivaldi’s ‘Gloria’ and ‘Magnificat,’” performed by an all-female orchestra and chorus, no one will be concealed.
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The Masterworks Project — a partnership between Early Music Seattle (formerly Early Music Guild), Portland Baroque Orchestra, Early Music Vancouver, and Early Music Society of the Islands (Victoria) — has recruited talent from around the Pacific Northwest to form a 17-piece orchestra and 12-member chorus, augmented by the Seattle Girls Choir.
The concertmaster and director for this rare opportunity to see and hear an evocation of those Pieta Sundays is Monica Huggett, internationally acclaimed Baroque violinist, fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in London and artistic director of Portland Baroque Orchestra and U.K.-based Ensemble Sonnerie.
It was Huggett’s idea to organize “Venetian Women” as a chance to recreate Vivaldi’s all-female scenarios.
“Aristocrats in the 17th and 18th century, after indulging in the debauchery for which Venice was famous, would salve their consciences by attending the musical performances of religious works given by those women,” she says in an email.
“Venetian Women” includes three vocal works and two concertos. The program begins with the three-minute “Laetatus Sum” in F major, a lilting setting of voices, strings and continuo for Psalm 121.
Following that is the brief Concerto for Oboe and Trumpet in D major, then two other sacred vocal works: “Magnificat,” a nine-part canticle, and the beautiful “Gloria.” Between those two pieces is one more instrumental, the Concerto for Oboe and Violin in B flat major.
“Magnificat” and “Gloria” are most recognizable today performed by mixed voices of women and men. It’s something of a revelation to hear them sung exclusively by the former. There is a stirring radiance, a sublime grace different from the heavier solemnity of male voices woven in. Huggett says Vivaldi sought that effect for women singers, though he was commercial enough to adjust his scores for a blended chorus when his compositions were later published.
The Pieta “ensemble was not allowed by law to include any male musicians,” Huggett says. “In order for women to perform four-part choral music, the tenor and bass parts were taken by girls and women who had lower voices. The bass part was transposed up an octave to fit the female voices, and the tenor part was also transposed if it went too low. The lack of a genuine bass vocal could be compensated by cellos, double bass, bassoon and keyboard instruments.”
Huggett says when she hears this music performed by women singers, she doesn’t miss the bass.
“What one does hear is the sweetness which occurs when voices are in close harmony. It is a similar effect in barbershop quartets, or Swedish folk fiddling, where you have three violins playing in close harmony with no bass. It sounds sweeter, simpler and a little naive.”
While there are reasons enough, musically and historically, to fill the stage with women for this concert, it’s impossible not to appreciate the event’s resonance with our cultural, social and political moment in America for women’s empowerment. Early Music Seattle, seeking a legacy from “Venetian Women” beyond the concerts, has enlisted Seattle’s feminist video production and mentoring organization Reel Grrls to produce a documentary.
The film not only will capture rehearsals and a performance, but more broadly, the subject of women in music. A premiere is planned for February.