Barbara Strozzi and Venus Unwrapped
There was no other word for it: ‘sublime’. I knew nothing more than that Barbara Strozzi existed, and that she was a Venetian singer and composer of the 17th century.
So I was unprepared for the richness of sound and the depth of feeling in the concert by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at Kings Place earlier this month. Strozzi might have been yet another woman whose output would have sunk without trace had she not, at her own expense, published several volumes of her music, including madrigals, arias and cantatas. The programmes notes described her work as ‘erotically charged and emotionally stripped to the bone.’ I second that.
Strozzi’s father initially nurtured her vocal talents, but when her flair for composition became clear, he engaged the composer Cavalli to teach her. At the salons that her father arranged in his own home to give her more exposure to Venice’s elite Strozzi sang like an angel and played the gracious hostess, but was also, contrary to custom, was a lively participant in the intellectual discussions that took place.
Mary Bevan and the members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (which included their choir) explored the full range of Strozzi’s compositions: witty, sensual, – and, in ‘Lagrime mei’ (‘My tears’) heartrending, submerged in the torment and despair of thwarted love. This fantastic opportunity to discover a long-departed diva dame came courtesy of the ‘Venus Unwrapped’ season at Kings Place, which is running all this year. It features the music of 140 women and will cover nearly a thousand years of music, from the ethereal beauty of medieval choral music in works by Hildegard von Bingen to the avant-garde output of Anna Meredith, who has admitted that ‘my GCSE piece included the instructions to play with nose and hands, and to headbutt the keyboard!’
Many of the artists involved in the season have seized on the opportunity to bring into the light of day music by women we are unlikely to have heard of: the Brandenburg sisters, daughters of the bullying King Frederick William of Prussia, who hated music, persevered with their studies and produced pieces of real quality; the Polish composer Gražyna Bacewic, who died in 1969, has been described as ‘gloriously bracing’.
The range of performers is no less diverse, embracing all genres and sometimes fusing them. Laura Mvula and Black Voices will be singing music by Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday (though you’ll have to be quick – this is on 23 January), while in May legendary folk singer Peggy Seeger takes to the stage. Kate Rusby, Cara Dillon and Kathryn Tickell are among the other folk luminaries on offer. In February pianist extraordinaire Joanna McGregor is time-travelling from Beethoven to Nina Simone.
As I flick through the programme for the year, I realise I may just have to set up a camp bed in some quiet corner of Kings Place. All hail curator of Venus Unwrapped Helen Wallace, who has devised this irresistible feast of music by women.