Tag Archives: Mary Sullivan

Sweetest in the Gale’s Baroque Beauties

Oratorio Chorale
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brunswick
April 9, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The Oratorio Chorale’s women’s choir is named “Sweetest in the Gale,” (from the Emily Dickinson poem “Hope is a Thing with Feathers”). Sunday’s concert at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brunswick was more like an inland breeze from the ocean on a hot day, both surprising and refreshing.

Director Emily Isaacson has a knack for choosing scores that perfectly illustrate her concert titles, in this case “Beauties of the Baroque,” and that offer something to every member of the audience. The choir she has founded and coached is little short of phenomenal, and her choice of soloists, Mary Sullivan, soprano, and Jenna Guiggey, alto, complements it very well.

Add to this a fine baroque chamber ensemble, and you have recipe for a delightful, if short (one hour) Sunday afternoon.

The opening work, Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) “Angelus ad pastors ait; Ubi Duo,” was both sweet and surprising. Sweet in the harmonies that Monteverdi achieves through counterpoint, and surprising for the contrasting lines the choir is able to obtain with female voices alone. The low altos served the essential purpose of the bass in mixed choirs that we have long been arguing for,

The second piece, “Duo Seraphim,” by Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611), was surprising for what came after it: a setting of the same text by Caterina Assandra (c. 1590-after 1611). It is a good example for those who argue that female composers of the past may have been the equals of their male counterparts, but suppressed by societal conventions.

More evidence was offered by the sprightly and modern-sounding “Quis dabit mihi,” by Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677), which describes what seems to be a love affair between the composer and Jesus, evoking images of the ecstasy of St. Teresa as depicted by Bernini.

The second half of the program was devoted to the great “Stabat Mater” of Giovanni Batista Pergolesi (1710-1736), which describes in 12 cantos the agony of Christ’s mother beneath the cross. The narrative, which alternates between chorus and soloists, both alone and in duets, is highly operatic and ornamented to an extent that offers major challenges to the singers. There are dramatic leaps in pitch and changes in volume that must have delighted divas of the past, but tend to dismay modern singers. Not so Sullivan and Guiggey.

What is surprising about the Stabat Mater is how much musical conventions have changed. There are sections that to a modern ear sound almost cheerful, but which were intended to describe the depths of suffering. The music is still effective; it just doesn’t seem to illustrate the text as well as it used to. One thinks of the high-pitched counter tenors chosen by Purcell to depict British heroes.

Isaacson’s lively direction of the chorus and the baroque ensemble unified the work and brought it to life once more, earning a standing ovation from the capacity audience.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

“Sweetest in the Gale” Is

Oratorio Chorale
Sweetest in the Gale
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Brunswick
Apr. 3, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

It is an article of faith among feminists that the reason there have been no women composers among the ranks of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, is because they were so severely limited by the mores of their times, some even having to resort to male pseudonyms to have their work published at all.

The recent concert of Emily Isaacson’s new women’s chorus, “Sweetest in the Gale,” at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, made a strong case for this view.

While every work on the program, in chronological order from Hildegard of Bingen to Gwyneth Walker, was written by a woman, and all were beautifully sung, the quality of the compositions seemed to improve as their writers began to shake off the shackles of male domination.

The final works on the program, “Three Heavens and Hells,” by Meredith Monk (b. 1942) and “Love is a Rain of Diamonds,” by Gwyneth Walker (b. 1947), are masterpieces that excel most of what I have heard from contemporary male composers of choral music.

The concert was led by assistant conductor Mark Rossnagel rather than Isaacson, who is expecting the birth of her second child this week.

None of the above implies that the earlier works were not masterpieces, although it was hard to tell about Clara Schumann’s Nocturne, Opus 6, No. 2, which accompanist Derek Herzer had to play on an electric piano. Having tried to do something similar, after being used to a real grand piano, I can testify that making anything at all of the score was a minor miracle.

Soprano Mary Sullivan was in rare form in three display pieces that I had not heard before, all of them works of high drama and fiendish difficulty. The first, like Bernini’s sculpture of St. Theresa in ecstasy, is enough to make a normal concert goer blush. It was written by Augusta Holmes (1847-1903), setting verses by St. Teresa of Avila, in which she “dramatically reimagines her intense and transporting encounter with God, which builds to a climax of ecstasy.” Shades of the Tantra.

The second, with members of the chorus, was “Les sirènes,” by Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), who might have rivaled Debussy had she lived longer. It is equally erotic, but in a more classical way. One can hear how the seductive immortals might have tempted Ulysses.

The obligatory Amy Beach (1867-1944) came in the form of a charming “Through the house give glimmering light,” Op. 39, No. 3, reminiscent of bird song, with some unusual and well-done sforzando stops.

Sullivan returned for a heart wrenching rendition of “Anne Boleyn,” from “Try Me, Good King: Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII,” by Libby Larsen (b. 1950). Needless to say, in spite of her eloquent pleading, she does not get her wish and hopes that the executioner knows his job.

I have already mentioned the final works on a short but brilliant program. “Three heavens and hells” has everything a modern choral work should have, but usually doesn’t. A round is illustrated by a round dance of the singers. The words generate the music, instead of being accompanied by them, and the little details, such as a singer in a monotone totally off key, are both fitting and remarkable. The entire thing, based on a poem by an 11 year old boy, is delightful and make one ponder the corollary of Sartre’s dictum that “Hell is other people.”
“Love Is a Rain of Diamonds,” setting a poem by May Swensen, exudes pure joy, and resulted in a standing ovation from the capacity audience.
Sweetest in the Gale (from “Hope Is a Thing with Feathers,” by Emily Dickinson), is a group of 20 auditioned sopranos and altos formed by Emily Isaacson and the Oratorio Chorale last Fall. After Sunday’s concert one hopes to hear more from them.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.