By Philippa Kiraly, Special to The Sybaritic Singer
Picture an innocent Soul, Anima, a young woman in virginal white in this performance, wandering about, wondering about how she can reach Jesus and why isn’t he responding? Then picture Jesus gently responding to the loving Soul and explaining how best to be with him.
The music for this illustrates an allegorical story: Eternal Beloved, a sacred recreation for two voices, violins and continuo, by a prolific and very gifted composer of the 17th century, Isabella Leonarda, whose music is only now beginning to garner the recognition male contemporaries like Monteverdi have enjoyed for years.
Performed at St. James Cathedral Saturday night by Pacific MusicWorks and led by Stephen Stubbs, this motet included two stellar soloists who made the work grippingly immediate. Soprano Danielle Sampson and countertenor Reginald Mobley sang mostly in a recitative style but with short arioso-type sections. The two alternated but also joined in duet, accompanied by an instrumental continuo group.
Leonarda’s music is rich and expressive, with melismatic runs and wide range for both singers. While today the role of Jesus is taken usually by a countertenor, Leonarda, who had been in a convent from the age of sixteen, presumably composed entirely for female voices. She must have had some available singers with a very low range, as Mobley had to reach down into his tenor level at least once, albeit with no break between that and his higher voice.
The program included the words in both Latin and English, so that following along was easy, but not looking up would have meant losing Sampson’s acting, a restrained but clear expressing of Anima’s yearning, need and reaching out with love, but also her turning away to the delights of the earth, draping herself with jewels, adding a tiara, even taking a selfie with it, all in slow, flowing motion which never detracted from the music. Mobley had less action but reached out with his arms to gather in a straying lamb and eventually took her by the hand.
Both singers have voices that allowed the music’s melodic lines and harmonies to come through clearly. They blended well, and while both have solid cores and excellent pitch, neither has a sharp edge to the voice. Each note shone through round and whole, soaring up to the cathedral’s roof at times, much quieter at others but always audible to listeners.
The group of baroque musicians, Stubbs on lute or guitar, Henry Lebedinsky on harpsichord and organ, Caroline Nicholas playing cello, Maxine Eilander on harp and Tekla Cunningham and Cynthia Black playing violin, gave Leonarda’s music its full due. Hers is definitely an individual voice while of the same school as Monteverdi, who was a generation older. The musicians also played a couple of her sonatas as interludes. Leonarda couldn’t have had better presenters than these to show off her music.
Philippa Kiraly has been writing classical music criticism since 1980, for several newspapers in northern Ohio and Seattle, magazines, both local and national, and blogs. She is passionate about the importance of independent criticism for the fine arts, an art in itself which is dying with little interest by many publications and no longer a viable career for most. But writing for tickets is always worthwhile!
Pippa is a keen gardener, a keen grandparent, and can get lost in a good book.