As the myth goes, the severed head of Orpheus (resting upon his lyre) floated into the Mediterranean Sea, landing upon the shore of Lesbos. It was there that it sang the songs which taught the women the secrets of sexual pleasure. Many in the audience felt the same way on April 5 when Siren Baroque performed at Drew University.
An all-female troupe sang the pleasures (and delicious heartbreaks) of love as written by female composers of the Baroque Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries, a pin could be heard to drop in the lovely hall, so rapt was the audience’s attention.
The six women of Siren Baroque were: Brittany Palmer and Brett Umlauf, sopranos; Liv Heym and Antonia Nelson, violins; Anneke Schaul-Yoder, cello; and Kelly Savage, harpsichord. They performed works by Barbara Strozzi, Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Antonia Bembo, Bianca Maria Meda, Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana, Isabella Leonarda, and Maria Francesca Nascinbeni. These women were either noble, wealthy, in a convent, or combinations of the three. It is amazing to think that they were able to write music and to have it published at a time when women (let alone nuns) were not in the best position to be out and about in the world.
The program’s formal title was, “Siren Songs: Courts to Convents.” The evening began with a lecture of sorts. Podium duties were shared by Ms. Savage and Ms. Nelson as they gave short biographies of each composer with a few illustrations performed by musicians in the group. They stated that the Pope did not fancy women writing music, since He found that it “excited” them too much. Still, Maria Francesca Nascinbeni dedicated one collected work to the mother of Pope Innocent X according to the program notes.
Questions were fielded from the audience about their instruments. Ms. Haym spoke passionately about her violin, and how its shape determined the sound. She also spoke about the use of gut strings rather than modern, steel strings. The fact that Jascha Heifetz and Lord Yehudi Menuhin used gut strings twined along with metal was an intriguing fact. Ms. Schaul-Yoder spoke about her bow, and how it is differently shaped then the modern bow. Ms. Savage spoke of her harpsichord and how it is tuned to a certain temper. An audience member asked if it was tuned to A-415 pitch. The answer was yes.
The music performed was written between the years 1644 to 1707. To place the music in its sonic landscape, Dieterich Buxtehude was born in 1637 and Gaspard Le Roux was born in 1660. Handel, Bach, and Scarlatti were all living, all three having been born in 1685. To many in the audience, the pieces had the sound of Monteverdi, who had died in 1643 after a long career.
The sopranos and quartet of musicians exhibited rapt attention to detail, with effervescent and committed ensemble, while never stinting on drama or virtuosity. The evening had many lovely moments. The artists were ecstatically applauded at the end of the program. They performed an encore.
This was the last concert of the 2013-2014 season at Drew University.