Sweetest in the Gale, a women’s chamber choir drawn from the ranks of the Oratorio Chorale, made its debut a year ago under circumstances that were less than ideal. The group’s director, Emily Isaacson, had to bow out when her physician ordered bed rest (she was pregnant and due any day), and although her conducting assistant, Mark Rossnagel, did a fine job with a complicated program devoted fully to works by female composers, the choir’s performance was inconsistent.
Think of this year’s concert, therefore, as something of a reboot. Held Saturday evening at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Falmouth (with a repeat on Sunday afternoon at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brunswick), the program “Baroque Beauties” was devoted to sacred works for women’s voices, composed in the 16th through 18th centuries. Isaacson conducted, and the choir was in excellent form.
Not all the composers were women this time, which is understandable given that finding Baroque choral works for women’s voices only is a tall order, even without making the composers’ gender part of the search criteria. But Isaacson found two – the prodigiously gifted Barbara Strozzi, who lived from 1619 to 1677, and the less well-known (and shorter-lived) Caterina Assandra, who was born around 1590 and died the year before Strozzi was born.
Strozzi was a prolific composer of songs and madrigals, which I hope Isaacson and company eventually explore. But she wrote relatively little sacred music. She was represented here by her only known motet, “Quis Dabit Mihi,” an intensely expressive, overtly dramatic setting for choir and solo soprano in which a longing for the love of Jesus is amplified by adventurous chromaticism, quickly shifting rhythms and even passing dissonances that resolve, much as they would in a secular love song, once the heart’s desire is achieved.
Strozzi’s piece, published in 1655, bears elements of the operatic style that was beginning to take shape in the decades just before her birth. That style might have been alien to Assandra, a nun who composed principally for the church. Her 1609 work “Duo Seraphim” is notably less theatrical and more cerebral, with sublimely shaped melodies and contrapuntal textures as its salient features.
Stylistically, Assandra’s work had closer links to the Claudio Monteverdi and Tomás Luis Victoria, the composers whose works opened the program. Isaacson conducted their works – Monteverdi’s “Angelus ad Pastores” and “Ubi Duo ves Tres,” with Victoria’s “Duo Seraphim” nestled between them – without pause, and drew a strong, nicely rounded sound from her 27-voice choir.
The program’s final work, and its largest, was Giovanni Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater.” Pergolesi is one of classical music’s truly sad cases. Renowned as a composer of comic operas (his “La Serva Padrona” is still performed), he died of tuberculosis when he was 26, shortly after completing his “Stabat Mater” setting. In recent years, musicologists have whittled away at his catalog, showing that six popular “Concerti Armonici,” long attributed to him, were actually the work of a Dutch count, Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer, and the trio sonatas that Igor Stravinsky thought were Pergolesi’s when he repurposed and rescored them for his “Pulcinella” ballet were actually by Domenico Gallo.
The “Stabat Mater” is unquestionably Pergolesi’s, although to his mind, it was not a choral work. He scored it for soprano and alto soloists, whose dramatic arias and duets are operatic in form, if devotional in spirit. The choral expansions were added by Joseph Eybler, a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, long after Pergolesi’s death, but they are performed often, and add an emphasis that does no violence to Pergolesi’s vision.
The soloists, soprano Mary Sullivan and alto Jenna Guiggey, both brought power, suppleness and expressive depth to their work (Sullivan also gave a fine account of the solo section in the Strozzi), and if the choir had relatively little to do, its contributions were robust and well-balanced.
A small ensemble, borrowed mostly from St. Mary Schola, with Ray Cornils at the organ, joined the singers for a lively, polished performance of the Pergolesi, and Mr. Cornils played subtle accompaniments in the Strozzi and Assandra pieces.
Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at: