A distinguished national early music group, Agave Baroque, made its Seattle debut last Tuesday night at Trinity Parish Church with a superbly played and sung program of music by a composer virtually unknown to most of us. The audience was sophisticated and knowledgeable on early music, but sparse, probably due to a combination of Chairman Xi’s visit, the beginning of Yom Kippur, and a plethora of performances in Seattle this latter part of September.
Non-attendees missed a fascinating concert. Isabella Leonarda was a 17th-century Ursuline nun who composed prolifically and self-published about 200 of her works in 20 collections during her lifetime. Agave Baroque has performed around the country (and recorded on Vgo) the program they played here, titled “Queen of Heaven: Music of Isabella Leonarda in honor of the Virgin Mary.””Counter-tenor Reginald Mobley joined the four instrumentalists, Aaron Westman and Anna Washburn, baroque violins; Gretchen Classen, baroque cello and Henry Lebedinsky, harpsichord and organ, for three sonatas and three solo motets.
Leonarda’s music is a welcome addition to the 17th-century repertoire. May we hear more of her. It’s original in content, harmonically interesting, beautifully designed and expressive. Two of the three motets sung by Mobley were published in her last collection when she was 80 and still with all her musical faculties as sharp as ever. The first, “O Maria, quam dulcis,” is one of praise for Mary, the second, “Venite, laetantes,” a rare instance of the librettist—quite likely Leonarda herself—putting words in Mary’s mouth inviting supplicants to join her to find peace, love and everlasting life. The last sung and longest, “Quam dulcis es,” was earlier composed and is an outpouring of love for Mary.
Mobley was an ideal exponent of these. The gentle, warm quality his voice gave to the words, and the exquisite timbre, knowledge and complete ease in encompassing the style, melismas, and baroque ornamentation conveyed their meaning. The strength of his middle and lower countertenor range is unusual. He never needed to revert to tenor on those lower notes, so that the whole range remained smooth.
The instrumental works could easily be sung, if there were words to them. Leonarda used much the same style as in the motets, with instrumental recitatives included in the different sections. Seattle is no stranger to top quality baroque instrument playing and these four players, not until now familiar to Seattleites, will be welcome whenever they appear, particularly if they bring such unusual programs as this.
Lebedinsky is also the mover and shaker behind the new Early Music Underground here, which aims to bring early music back to informal concerts in more casual venues like bars or house concerts, with refreshments—a bit like what Simple Measures does with a more modern repertoire. Their next performance is September 27 at Mercer Island’s Emmanuel Episcopal Church, with “Song of Songs,” music of J.C Bach and others, at which Mobley will be singing.