Vivaldi as Written—For Women

“Vivaldi’s Church” and the Ospedale della Pietà in Modern Times

The week before Christmas, a unique magic filled the concert scene in Seattle—not with Santa and holiday carols, but with women musicians and Vivaldi’s music. Thanks to Early Music Seattle, two performances of Vivaldi’s Magnificat, Laetatus Sum, and Gloria, along with two concerti, were performed by an all-women orchestra and choirs.  

Many do not realize that Antonio Vivaldi wrote his choral and instrumental pieces to be performed by women, young orphan girls, along with a few older women who remained at the orphanage for life. After years of studying Vivaldi and his works, it was a joy beyond belief, to hear a performance as he intended, with women musicians.

Vivaldi’s choral music has parts for tenors and basses and there has been some debate about how those parts were performed in the eighteenth century. Some cite historical references to girls with deep voices; others maintain the girls sang the tenor and bass parts in a woman’s natural range, one octave higher. The latter path was chosen for this concert. I had wondered whether this juxtaposition of voices might interfere with the melody. I now know it does not.

In Vivaldi’s day, the girls would have performed behind a grille, ostensibly to protect the girls’ virginity. There was no grille in the First Baptist Church, but the women were equally anonymous, in black from toe to neck. A spacious sanctuary curves toward the audience, with space for choirs in back and instrumentalists tucked neatly between railings.

Their baroque instruments added to the authenticity of the performance. There were cellos without end pins, requiring the two cellists to grasp the cellos and support them between their legs. There was a trumpet without valves and a lute whose neck was probably taller than my full height.

Just before the concert the singers, in long, black dresses, processed down the aisle. The Seattle Girls Choir and a chorus of adult women filed in silently. The conductor, Monica Huggett, bounded onto the stage. The coattails on her black suit danced and her curly, silver hair bobbed around her head like an aura.

With feet planted firmly, Huggett used her entire body to conduct, rotating knees, hips, arms, and head. Her hands were like an ocean, flowing back and forth, then striking the shore with short blows, punctuating Vivaldi’s frenetic sixteenth notes. At times she reached out her hands in a majestic curve that felt like an embrace of every musician spread out before her. Never have I seen a male conductor imbue this posture with such welcoming warmth.

In the pieces where Huggett also played the violin, much as Vivaldi might have done, she used her instrument to signal the performers. A sweep of her bow out and in again, set the tempo, and then she conducted with the violin’s neck, shrugged shoulders and her bobbing head.

The instrumentalists were superb, especially Debra Nagy, the oboe soloist. The singing voices were precise with clear enunciation and beautiful intonation, in particular the pure sound of the younger girls in the Seattle Girls Choir, whose voices floated toward us as a single voice. It was easy to imagine them as angels, beneath the lighted Christmas trees, garlands, and wreaths.

Before the concert I spoke with Gus Denhard, the talented baroque musician and successful executive director of Early Music Seattle.

“It was a wonderful process,” he told me. “It was amazing to watch their preparation. It was so. . .” And after a slight pause, “Collaborative.”

“Oh,” I said, “You mean the way women work.”

“Exactly,” he said.

The collaborative spirit extended beyond the Seattle performance across state and international lines, as the project was supported by Early Music Vancouver, Portland Baroque Orchestra, Early Music Seattle, and Early Music Society of the Islands (Victoria).

In Seattle a standing ovation seems to be an expression of appreciation for musical effort, rather than a recognition of excellence, as Seattle audiences bounce to their feet after almost every performance. For this performance, however, I was delighted to stand and applaud these talented women who stoked a fire into dead history and set a blaze of sound throughout the church.

The quality of the performance was not due to gender, but demonstrated that gender does not determine musical skill. In a decidedly female moment, after one concerto, the two soloists Nagy and Huggett, leaned in and kissed each other’s cheeks. I wish I could have kissed them all.

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