Early Music Vancouver's Songs of the Cloisters makes for a compelling evening
Featuring Cappella Artemisa. An Early Music Vancouver production. At Christ Church Cathedral on Friday, November 2
The lure of the forbidden drew an unusually large audience to Christ Church Cathedral on Friday night, but it was beauty that kept the crowd entranced.
Based on what director Candace Smith said in her preconcert talk, the purportedly heretical nature of the material that Italy’s Cappella Artemisia has compiled for Songs of the Cloisters has been somewhat oversold. Yes, the Catholic hierarchy frowned upon musical nuns during the 17th century: song, the prelates thought, would be a sensual distraction from the necessary work of prayer. But the ban on music was enforced only in niggling ways: one convent, for example, was denied the services of an elderly and thus presumably anaphrodisiac trombone teacher on the grounds that no man should enter its hallowed halls. Such strictures didn’t stop listeners both male and female from flocking to convent concerts in Milan, Bologna, and elsewhere, in an early form of cultural tourism that no doubt funnelled a lot of money into church coffers.
Blind eyes were turned. And then tastes changed, leaving the nuns’ songs to moulder in church archives until Smith and other late-20th-century musicologists began their slow revival. Two things are clear from this work, one being that women played a much larger role in the development of western music than has hitherto been acknowledged. The other is that religious songs from 400 years ago can still speak to contemporary sensibilities, at least when given glorious voice by an exceptionally talented group of singers.
Two solos indicated the range of material, and of voices, that Smith has to work with. Phoebe Jevtović Rosquist sang Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana’s “Sonet vox tua”, from 1623, in an achingly pure soprano, finding true divinity in a melody “sweeter than honey and the honeycomb”. And then, following intermission, Pamela Lucciarini took an acrobatic approach to Chiara Margarita Cozzolani’s 1642 “Ecce annuntio vobis”, articulating its rococo contours with something approaching manic glee.
Further diversity was provided by an instrumental arrangement of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s Motet for 5 voices in which cornetto virtuoso Bruce Dickey made a compelling case that his chosen instrument—imagine a trumpet mouthpiece on the body of a keyless clarinet—should never have died out during the 1800s. Both he and his understudy Kiri Tollaksen produced truly glorious and shockingly voicelike sounds.
The best moments, though, came when all six singers, plus their four accompanists, were on the stage. Between the musical sophistication of the nuns’ writing and Smith’s energetic direction, the years between 1600 and now simply fell away, as our spirits rose with Cappella Artemisia’s voices into an exultant state of grace. Their delivery paid true testament to music’s enduring power, irrespective of one’s faith—or lack of such.