Musical Genius from the Convent

A review of Cappella Artemisia at ArtSpring October 30, 2012
by Jaime Murdoch

Candace Smith, from California but living in Italy since 1975 and founder of Cappella Artemisia, directs a most talented ensemble. Her vast knowledge of Early Music from the 16th and 17th centuries in Italy shone through the pre-concert chat she gave with cornettist Bruce Dickey as they provided audience members with insight into the music and its background. They were joined in performance in the concert by organist Miranda Aureli, cornettist Kiri Tollaksen, gambist (Viola di Gamba) Erin Headley and vocalists Agnes Zsigovics, Mya Fracassini, Pamela Lucciarini, Phoebe Jevtovic Rosquist and Silvia Vajente, hailing from various parts of North America and Italy.

This was a rare musical experience rich in history and culture. Smith is passionate about sharing the historical discoveries she has made; she opens audience members’ ears to the huge repertoire of music brought to life by the nuns of this early era in Italy and insists that “it’s not just a few little nuns singing Gregorian chants.” She has named the ensemble Cappella Artemisia after Artemisia Gentillesci, an incredibly strong female figure in the history of painting during the Baroque period, a time when women painters were not accepted among their male counterparts.

Like Gentillesci’s talent in painting, the musical repertoire of the nuns was impressive, and the pieces written were full scores that included both bass and tenor parts, which due to segregation were, of course, not sung by men. The nuns were clever and tended to get around various hurdles imposed by society and the Church. For the bass section, an early version of a trombone was played, and for the tenor section, an instrument long forgotten today due to it being replaced by the violin, the cornetto. Cornettist Bruce Dickey, an expert on the instrument, explained that it was used by the nuns for its vocal quality; it could imitate the human voice and be used to harmonize and cover high range voicing.

The nuns who made music in the chapels were not to be seen, not even in painted form (only a couple of paintings depicting nuns with musical instruments are in existence). They were only to be heard, and as a result, the nuns were “the hottest tourist attraction in Europe”. Architectural design in line with church authority allowed tourists to come and listen without seeing them. It is questionable whether these severe restrictions fueled or merely constricted the musical creativity in convents at this time.

Against the background of the stories of this forgotten past, the ten musicians of Capella Artemisia performed beautifully. It was like being privy to a forbidden view behind holy walls. Candace Smith continued to share her knowledge in between pieces, which provided an elegant flow to the evening. The group’s cohesion was displayed in dress and in posture, and by the end of the performance their sound and energy filled the room and drew compliments spoken aloud between applause. Informing us with history, stage presence and musical prowess, Capella Artemisia left listeners aglow and pleased to be more aware of the rich history of women in music.

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