Ludovico’s Band: The Voices of Women

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Published: 26th March, 2018

After so many successful years in the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Salon, it was interesting to see how Ludovico’s Band would fare in the much bigger Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. Would some of that special intimacy and immediacy be lost and, if so, would there be compensating factors?

The increasing popularity of performances by Ludovico’s Band has resulted in sold out events. Although repeat concerts went some way to meet demand, it was becoming increasingly clear that a shift to a larger venue was almost inevitable. Of more importance, however, was the need for a space that allowed for more expansive performances by guest artists. The instruments played by the core members under the leadership of Marshall McGuire were perfectly suited to the Salon. Along with McGuire’s baroque harp/keyboards, Tommie Andersson’s lute/guitar, Samantha Cohen’s theorbo and Ruth Wilkinson’s viola da gamba/recorders have been an ongoing delight. The Baroque violins of assorted guests also worked very well, but an emphasis on vocal works has presented more challenges. Last year, Ludovico’s Band invited a number of fine singers to join them in a series of uplifting celebrations of Claudio Monteverdi’s 450th Anniversary. It was clear that the talents of one singer in particular would have been shown to better advantage in a bigger venue. As the featured artist for “The Voices of Women”, Helen Thomson’s soprano was more fully revealed as an instrument of power and beauty.

While it was a woman’s voice interpreting songs by seventeenth century female composers, the lyrics were not always from the woman’s point of view. In the first of a bracket of three songs by Francesca Caccini (1587-1640) sympathy lies with a man’s unrequited love. The other two were prayerful appeals: Maria, dolce Maria and Himno ‘Jesu corona Virginum’. All were sung sensitively and with a thoughtful combination of delicacy and strength. The quality of Thomson’s voice is very appealing and in gentler passages is reminiscent of Emma Kirkby’s ability to spin out a long, elastic vocal line with fluid ornamentation. Tuning into the hall’s resonant acoustic, Thomson’s voice also soared to give emotional weight to some of the more impassioned moments in these works.

The Florentine Francesca Caccini has the historical distinction of being the first woman to write an opera but the Venetian Barbara Strozzi (1587-1640) certainly has her claim to fame. She has been called “the most prolific composer – man or woman – of printed secular vocal music in Venice in the Middle of the century.” Again, however, the three chosen Strozzi works were from the male perspective. Not that it really mattered; their quality more than justified their inclusion. Even more dramatic and florid than the Caccini pieces, they were all totally captivating. Thomson’s soft singing towards the end of “Pensaci ben mio core” and in the final item was simply gorgeous. She made convincing work of the drama of “L’eraclito amorso”, where the rocking, sobbing rhythms of Heraclitis’ lament were reminiscent of that greatest of Venetian composers, Monteverdi. “La mia donna (La sol fa mi re do)” completed the program on a upbeat note. Fast, florid, theatrical and witty, it enabled Thomson to display her considerable vocal virtuosity and colorful dramatic palette.

When introducing the two works by Isabella Leonarda (1619-1677), Marshall McGuire conjured up vivid images of a dark cell in an Ursuline convent where Leonarda snatched time from her duties as a kind of Mother Superior to compose at night. Such was her devotion to music that she too became one of the most prolific composers of her time. Her Sonata Quinta for two violins, violone and basso continuo opened the program and was played as a graceful conversation between the two accomplished Baroque violinists, Shane Lestideau and Elizabeth Welsh. The latter also gave an eloquent performance of Leonarda’s Sonata duodecima for violin and basso continuo, bending plaintive notes in the opening passages that led to a dance with the viola da gamba. I was not alone in being struck by the vocal quality of the final recitative.

After the concert, most members of the audience were busy filling out the survey sheets distributed by the concert’s sponsors, the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. The organisation aims to use historical knowledge from Europe between 1100 and 1800 to understand the long history of emotional behaviours. From Leonarda’s violin focused items to the vocal compositions with their sparse accompaniments by core members of the band, this was a program that was bound to stir the emotions. The survey results should make fascinating (and reassuring) reading. At least the first question “I like the ensemble” is bound to elicit a resounding “Strongly agree”. But maybe the “like” should have been replaced by “love”.

Reviewer Heather Leviston heard the performance of The Voices Of Women by Ludovico’s Band at the Melbourne Recital Centre on March 20, 2018.