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 Some cite historical references to girls with deep voices; others maintain the girls sang the tenor and bass parts in a woman’s natural range, one octave higher.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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First Women from a British Fashion Magazine

Searching the airport magazine rack, on my way to Dallas, I spied a magazine with an intriguing promo on the first page. “Incredible Women” it shouted in letters only slightly smaller than the name of the magazine, Porter. I didn’t know the magazine (turns out it’s like Vogue and other high-end fashion magazines only it’s British and you can shop right off of its pages). One issue was $10, so I hesitated, but the subtitle, “The voices inspiring change in 2017” drew me in. I plopped down my money, certain the magazine would yield some First Women in its pages.

And it did—24 pages, with “50 global heroines in science, entertainment, business and beyond, who have spoken out and empowered us over the last 12 months.” The magazine was not current, it turned out, published early in 2017. This was before “Me, too” so the names might be different now, but the list did yield some interesting First Women:

Sarahal Suhaimi (photographed with hijab) – the First Women CEO of a Saudi investment bank, also the First Woman to head Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange.

Maria Balshaw – First Women to head the Tate Museum in England

Cressida Dick – First Woman head of the Metropolitan Police in London

Danny Cotton – First Women commissioner of the London Fire Brigade

Misty Copeland  also made the list, the First African-American Woman principal at the American Ballet Theater.

There were three First Women who surprised me:

Nita Ambani – First Woman member of the International Olympic Committee (Women have competed since 1900. What took so long?)

Barbara Jatta – First Woman to head the Vatican Library (Let’s hear it for Pope Francis!)

Jamie Kern Lima – First Woman CEO of L’Oreal (Really? This company was founded in 1909 in Paris to sell women’s cosmetics. Only now a woman is in charge?)

In general, a disproportionate number of women in fashion and related industries were in the list. Upon reflection, I wondered whether women might make faster progress in chipping away at glass ceilings if the women in industries that are generally considered “Women’s Work” spoke out more and pushed for change. Given the recent “Me, too” movement, perhaps they have.

The piece also pointed out the number of women who are still recognized as “The First Woman To. . .” In lists of men that appear in magazines, the words ‘the first man to. . .” rarely makes the page. Except for Neil Armstrong or some athletic records, the word “first” rarely appears for our masculine counterparts. I long for the day when women routinely participate in so many arenas that the word “first” does not have to be used to define a woman who succeeds.

 

 

“Outlander” and a First Woman

The writers of Outlander know the power of First Women. In the second episode this season Claire is examining her lot in life. She has tried to fulfill her housewifely duties (with the notable exception of the bedroom). She keeps house, raises her child, entertains guests, and attends faculty parties, but she laments to herself that she does not feel “whole.”

While cleaning the breakfast dishes off the table, she reads the banner headline on the morning newspaper, “Truman Appoints First Woman Treasurer.” Just below is the name of Georgia Neese Clark.

One of the beauties of historical fiction is that real characters can appear in the narrative and Clark is very real. An economics major, she first tried her hand at acting. Later she worked at her father’s bank and, when he died, took over not only the bank, but a whole host of other business enterprises controlled by her father.

In her spare time, she was an active Democrat and supporter of Harry Truman. Men who support presidents often find themselves in the President’s administration, but from the beginning of the republic until Clark’s appointment in 1949 she was only the second woman to be rewarded. (The first was Frances Perkins, the First Woman cabinet member, appointed by FDR in 1933.)

For some reason, every Treasurer of the United States since Georgia Neese Clark has been a woman. The current Treasurer is Jovita Carranza.

The headline about Clark strikes Claire forcefully. She enrolls in medical school, where the white male students refuse to sit beside her. But she persists, graduates, and becomes a surgeon.

Outlander is one of my favorite sins. I crave it and indulge myself in its episodes. I appreciate that the series is adapted from a novel—and that the woman author is making big bucks from her work. It is historical fiction, combining fictional and real characters, my favorite genre developed in my favorite way. But, I also appreciate the artistry of the series: the lighting, the set design and decorations, the acting, the cinematography, the directing. And the writers, first of all Diana Gabaldon, author of the book, and the many artists who create the scripts.

Taking a whole episode to show a wedding night and maintaining tension throughout is a masterful creation. And now they have dipped their toes into my favorite topic. What could be better?

Claire is thrown into action by the example of a First Woman. The achievement of being first is laudable, but the greatest benefit is in the inspiration provided to other women. First Women are guiding lights. We cannot be what we cannot see.

“Time” and First Women

After four years of writing about First Women on this blog, I am delighted to see Time magazine jump on the bandwagon for First Women. They have put together a wonderful multi-media project with profiles about First Women and I recommend you check it out.

The September 18 issue of Time has amazing photographs of 46 living women who are First Women. (Fourteen of them have been profiled previously in these posts.) The issue of the magazine is exciting for me because of the topic but, I have to admit, I was most blown away by the photographs. They were taken with an iPhone yet capture each woman’s essence and are photographic artistry at its best.

As part of the release Time has built a captivating web page at http://time.com/collection/firsts/ with short videos of each of the women. There are also three topic-focused videos about fighting sexism and double standards, finding inspiration to go first, and balancing family and work. I recommend viewing them all, although watching the same commercials at the beginning of each video does get tiresome. My favorite is the video on Family as I believe the obstacles to achieving a balance with work may be the most significant issue women face today.

All of this is a promotion for the book Firsts: Women Who Are Changing the World, by the editors of Time and Nancy Gibbs, the First Woman editor of the magazine. It will be released this week. My local independent bookstore should have a copy for me any day now and I’m looking forward to reviewing it on this blog. I believe that telling stories of First Women provides a springboard for conversations about how far women have come, but also a clarion call to women to work to preserve their rights for the future.

First Women at the Movies

          Patty Jenkins is the First Woman to direct a superhero movie for a major studio. In May, 2017 her film Wonder Woman opened to the biggest weekend box office for a woman director in the history of cinema.

Diana Prince, Wonder Woman’s civilian identity, had a long road from Themyscira, where she is princess, to the big screen. First the film had difficulty finding a studio. Then the movie was predicted that it would fail. Because Catwoman and Elektra had flopped, studio executive assumed the same would be true of Wonder Woman. Did studio executives not consider quality when making decisions. Just look at the rankings for the movies: Rotten Tomatoes gave Catwoman only 9% and Elektra 10%, whereas Wonder Woman received a 95% ranking on Rotten Tomatoes.

Forgive my snide aside here, but both Catwoman and Elektra were directed by men. Perhaps it takes a woman to appreciate the complexity of a woman superhero and produce a quality film about her. That, of course, is not be fair. Male directors succeeded with both Rogue One and The Hunger Games, successful films about strong warrior women. Perhaps the studio executives didn’t watch those films when they decided Wonder Woman could not succeed.

The large box office numbers are great, but the best part of the Wonder Woman is the reaction of young girls around the country. They are captivated by this character and emulating her costume as well as her strength and high morals.

Awards at Festival de Cannes

          In May, 2017, Sofia Coppola also won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival. Her movie The Beguiled, based on a book by Thomas Cullinan, is the story of an injured Union soldier who is cared for in a boarding house of Confederate women during the Civil War. Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning star along with Colin Farrell.

Coppola is actually the second woman to win the award but it has been a half century since the First Woman won Best Director recognition. In 1961 Soviet director Yuliya Solntseva won the Best Director prize for her film about World War II, The Story of the Flaming Years.

The most prestigious award at the Cannes Festival is the Palme d’Or. In the seventy-year history of the Festival, the Palme d’Or has been presented under various names, but only once has it been awarded to a woman. In 1993 Jane Campion received the prize for her film The Piano, but she shared it with Chinese film director Chen Kaige and his film Farewell my Concubine.

Closing Credits

The most promising thing about these achievements by Coppola and Jenkins might be the fact that the characters they portrayed were created by men. Women’s stories written by men and interpreted by women. It seems to be a winning combination, a true reflection of the meaning of feminism.