The Newberry Consort

at the Newberry Library, January 13

There’s something magical about the sound of disparate women’s voices singing in harmony, and composers such as Mozart and Richard Strauss made the most of it. The operatic literature is full of “girls’ glees.” There are noisy lots: Wagner’s Valkyries and the Maids in Elektra. But the enchantment is reserved for the quieter ones: The Magic Flute’s Three Ladies and Three Boys; Naiad, Dryad, and Echo in Ariadne auf Naxos; and the trio and duet that end Der Rosenkavalier. Is it the blend of vocal timbres found in women’s voices that does it? Is it our usually greater ability to cross voices while staying in range? Whatever the reason, mixed men’s voices somehow just don’t have the same effect, and men and women singing together seldom achieve it.

So it was a particular pleasure to hear a women’s vocal trio performing some unfamiliar early music when the Newberry Consort presented the second concert of its 12th season. Only one official member of the consort, director Mary Springfels, was part of this second annual “Daughters of the Muse” concert (“Ladies’ Night at the Newberry”), which focused on music written for women singers in Italy and Spain between 1580 and 1640. It offered some interesting discoveries, and for fans of early music who find the sound of the countertenor voice less than appealing it was the perfect way to enjoy vocal music of this era.

Beginning in 1580, the ducal court of the Estes at Ferrara in northern Italy became a center for music, sponsoring both vocal and instrumental musicians. Among them was a group of gifted women, the concerto delle donne, who both sang and played instruments. In long concerts for the court and its guests they sang from memory, demonstrated their sight-reading ability, showed just how many notes they could sing on a single syllable, and were exhibited, as Springfels observes, rather like trained seals or dogs. The concept was a hit. Concerti were founded in other cities, and they shared music and artistic ideas. Over in Spain at the same time there was a different school of women’s music, in which women who were trained primarily as actors, taking male as well as female roles, sang in music dramas. They weren’t musicians but learned their parts by rote, and as a consequence their music is less exacting. Compositions from both traditions were performed in “Daughters of the Muse.”

At first glance it may seem a bit PC to devote a concert to music entirely for women, but this one was entertaining and educational, as is usually the case with consort performances. The Italian pieces in particular were intricate and technically demanding, weaving harmonies and putting breath control to the test. They often require the singers to take sections a cappella before the instruments are introduced. This is always risky given the potential for downward-sliding pitches, but it was a challenge the singers almost always met triumphantly.

The music included trios, duets, and a couple of solos for each singer, along with an unaccompanied turn by Springfels on the viola da gamba, providing occasional respites for each performer and a wide enough range of sounds that the ear didn’t tire of the same old thing. The Italian selections tended to be the most satisfying, but the three pieces by Giaches de Wert (1535-1596) were a revelation. De Wert was a wise choice to open and close (in an encore) the concert. No less an eminence than Palestrina referred to this Dutch-born composer as “un virtuoso veramente raro,” with good reason, on the evidence of his music presented here. His songs deployed the full ensemble to good effect, particularly the encore, “Felice l’alma,” a splendid showpiece for all involved. The other showstopper was the deliciously rhythmic and very, very Spanish “Chaconna” by Juan Aranes. Somewhat surprisingly, the least effective number on the program was by the best-known composer, Claudio Monteverdi. His solo for mezzo-soprano with harpsichord accompaniment “A Dio, Roma!” was not among his most inspired works.

Springfels is the linchpin of the Newberry Consort. Her spoken and written commentaries provide a framework for the music presented and prevent these concerts from turning into context-free “Here’s a song we really like–hope you enjoy it” affairs, as is sometimes the case with other ensembles. She’s also the dramatic center of the group, moving with the music, singing along silently even when she’s not playing; her mobile face conveys her pleasure in the music and helps sell it to the audience. Harpsichordist Barbara Weiss played well and provided a laconic contrast to Springfels.

All three singers were excellent, but three very different voices were on display, and they didn’t always succeed in blending their distinctions. Veteran early-music soprano Ellen Hargis, in the middle position, was the most consistently satisfying, with her womanly tone, commanding posture, and understanding of what a given song was trying to say. She also seemed to be having a good time. Soprano Christine Brandes has a perhaps more typical early-music voice–bright, somewhat pointed, with a bit of an edge at times–and it didn’t always work with Hargis’s, though her solo work was quite gratifying. Jennifer Lane is a true mezzo-soprano, with a rich, unforced dark tone. She sang very well but should pay attention to Hargis’s approach to singing; her habit of bobbing over her score sometimes detracted from her artistry.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin-Jennifer Girard Studio.