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 Some cite historical references to girls with deep voices; others maintain the girls sang the tenor and bass parts in a woman’s natural range, one octave higher.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

 

 

Women in Western Washington Politics

Is a new day dawning? At least on the Left Coast? Women in Western Washington have reached another rung on the ladder that leads to full parity in our legislative bodies. They are running in greater numbers for local offices and, in some cases in this past election, the final two candidates for some Washington positions were both women.

One example is Seattle. As I reported in August, the two candidates for mayor were both women, so Seattle was certain to have its first woman mayor since the mid 1920’s. Jenny Durkan, the new mayor, campaigned as the first openly gay U.S. Attorney.

In Everett, just north of Seattle, there are also two women running for mayor, after beating the incumbent in the primary election. They are currently deadlocked with only a handful of votes separating them. Unlike Seattle, Everett has never had a woman mayor.

Further south, just before the Oregon border, in Vancouver, Washington, Anne McEnerny-Ogle beat four men in the primary. After the current mayor dropped out, she was the only candidate remaining. Vancouver will have its first woman mayor since before the Civil War, when the city was founded.

Tacoma, Washington, a city near the capital city of Olympia, already has a woman mayor. In fact, if you travel the I-5 corridor (running from Bellingham in the north, to Vancouver in the south), there are eighteen cities with women mayors. For the whole state, there are more than thirty.

Just one step down from mayor are the city council seats. In Burien, just south of Seattle, women already hold the majority of city council seats. Seattle will follow suit with women holding six of the nine council seats. Women are running for these seats in greater numbers, as they are for seats in the state legislature.

Western states like Washington were on the forefront of granting women the right to vote, even before the Nineteenth Amendment clarified that right for every American woman. It is not surprising that they would also be on the forefront of electing women to office. A few years back, Washington had two women Senators and a woman Governor at the same time, the first and only state to do so.

Emily’s List (Emily means “Early Money is Like Yeast”) encourages women to run for office and helps raise funds for them. Last year 900 women indicated they were interested in running. This year 20,500 women contacted Emily’s List. It seems women are storming the castle. The ladder is braced against the castle walls. Hopefully, it won’t be long before women vault over the ramparts.

 

Women Head Dallas Justice System

The justice system in Dallas, Texas is now headed by three women of color. All three have walked into messes but, being women, they can probably handle it.

Renee Hall is the First Woman chief of the Dallas Police Department, beginning her position in September, 2017. She walked into a department that loses officers so routinely they are short 10% of the officers they need. Pay is low; pensions are in trouble; morale is negative. The challenge is substantial.

However, Hall may well be up to the task. She assumes the job after a successful stint as Deputy Chief of the Police Department in Detroit. While there she developed neighborhood policing and mentorship programs that resulted in reduced crime rates, even homicide. Pay was also low; pensions were in trouble; Detroit went through bankruptcy. It seems Hall might understand what she is up against. The City Manager of Dallas said she was hired for her “infectious presence.” As the First Woman she will need buckets of presence to overcome entrenched attitudes.

Hall will join Lupe Valdez, daughter of migrant farm workers, former Army officer, and Senior Agent at the Department of Homeland Security, who is Sheriff of Dallas County. Her election was followed closely as she was not only a woman and Hispanic, but also an openly gay candidate. The Sheriff’s department, like the police department, suffered from low morale. The department was also struggling with corruption charges and failing state and federal inspections for its jails. Valdez turned things around and is now serving her fourth term.

            Another woman, and also a woman of color is District Attorney for Dallas County, Faith Johnson. Raised in the Jim Crow South, she was a Dallas County prosecutor and then a judge for 17 years. She has a degree in psychology which should be useful, as this department lacks public trust and need an overhaul. Known for her long hours, and tough attitude, she just might be up to the challenge.

“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.