The chamber ensemble Sonnambula came on the scene only last season. But they combined talent and enthusiasm in an extremely polished, lovely, and revelatory program last night at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. Featuring music by French composer Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729) and her contemporaries, the concert demonstrated Jacquet’s specific abilities in the context of the music of her time. More generally, it showed the development from Renaissance style, with instruments playing equal parts, to Baroque, with the more complex harmony and counterpoint that led ultimately to J.S. Bach.
Led by gambist Elizabeth Weinfield, Sonnambula consisted at this concert of five core members – Weinfeld, Amy Domingues, and Shirley Hunt on viola da gamba, harpsichordist James Kennerley, and violinist Jude Ziliak – along with another excellent violinist, Toma Iliev. The exact personnel at Renaissance/Baroque music concerts, just as in other genres, varies with the requirements of the program. To the audience’s surprise, Kennerly doubled on vocals, singing in a beautiful high tenor an aria from Charpentier’s La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers.
Music for violas da gamba remains popular all these centuries later in part because of the sheer beauty of the sound great musicians draw from the six-stringed, partly fretted viols, which preceded the “modern” family of stringed instruments (violin, viola, violoncello, and bass viol). An active subculture of musicians and aficionados supports a thriving concert scene, as exemplified by the likes of the Boston Early Music Festival and the Gotham Early Music Scene. It’s no anomaly that the Baruch Performing Arts Center opened its busy season with Sonnambula.
The program covered a fairly wide range of forms and styles. Jacquet’s own music, with which I had not been familiar, looks ahead to the Baroque. Violinist Jude Ziliak displayed a lovely touch in the mournful Lento of the composer’s Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord No. 5 in A minor. Despite the title, the piece also calls for a viol, and the trio played with exquisite synchronization, particularly in the Courante. But the musicians’ sensitivity to one another’s rhythms was evident from the start, as all six swayed together through the lilting rhythms of the concert’s opening Chaconne by Michele-Richard de Lalande.
In the opening movement of Jacquet’s Trio Sonata No. 4 in C minor the ensemble fluttered together on marvelously exaggerated staccatos and pauses. In the second movement you could hear how Jacquet used the viol both as a continuo and as a counterpoint participant. In the sad third slow movement there was yet a sense of joy and even humor, and the sheer physical energy of the two violinists in the finale was a delight to behold.
Kennerly gave us two selections from Jacquet’s keyboard music, a Prelude without meter markings, meant to sound improvised – full of rubatos, it did – and a Chaconne whose title, “L’Inconstante,” may have referred, as Kennerly suggested, to the variations between D Major and D Minor, but which I think may have meant that the repeated figure in the bass – which is what makes it a Chaconne – is at times only implied. Kennerly also explained that Jacquet was the first French composer to have her keyboard compositions printed, another forward-thinking aspect of her ambitious artistry. (She was known as a wonderful singer as well as a keyboardist and composer.)
The second half of the program opened with a striking anonymous piece, a 1615 Pavane for the marriage of King Louis XIII and a somber Fantasia by Étienne Moulinie full of flowing close harmonies for three viols and one violin. Jacquet’s Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord No. 3 in F demonstrated her expansive vocabulary, encompassing racing Prestos and an Aria with nursery-rhyme charm. Violinist Toma Iliev drew beautiful pathos from the muted palette of the (I presume) baroque violin, and gambist Shirley Hunt displayed superb dexterity and luscious tone.
The concert closed with extracts from Lully’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Hearing these somewhat more familiar works made me even more impressed with what these six musicians have accomplished as a group in such a short time. The “Marche pour la Cérémonie Turque” was the most delicately phrased – I’m tempted to say the most musical – rendition I’ve heard.
I admit it: I had not known about Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. I’m grateful to Sonnambula for presenting her music so beautifully. This was the group’s first concert of a season on the theme of “Women’s Voices,” devoted to performing work by female composers of the early modern period – “a quintessential task,” explains Sonnambula’s website, “of feminist musicology: shifting the point of power away from a domineering force and toward a minority voice – letting it sound, and letting it speak.”