“Once people hear this music they do indeed come back for it—it is pleasing on so many levels: it soars, it soothes, it excites, it transports.”
By Susan Miron
Over the past few years, I have been hearing raves about Cappella Clausura, a group of 10 singers and period instrumentalists devoted to playing contemporary and early (eighth century!) works of women composers. Critics have been impressed not only by their vibrant and thoughtful performances of music from the ninth century to the present but by the detective work needed to track down these often hard-to-find pieces.
None of this would have happened without its gifted director, Amelia LeClair, a musical sleuth and gifted conductor whose pursuit of music by women has brought attention to unknown (or grievously overlooked) composers whose work reflects an extraordinary array of styles. Her particular focus has been on women in the cloister, or in clausura, during the Italian Baroque.
I have known LeClair from her Unitarian Vespers series in West Newton, where she directs Vermilion, a superb five-voice a cappella group. I have played for these services twice and was impressed with the blend and musicality of the five voices. I am not going to miss hearing Cappella Clausura perform at the end of this month.
Cappella Clausura will be giving its final concerts for the 2012-2013 season on April 27 and 28. Intrigued by their success, I interviewed LeClair about the origins of the group, her role models, and her most gratifying musical discoveries.
Arts Fuse: How, when, and why did Cappella Clausura begin?
Amelia LeClair: Cappella Clausura gave its first concert in May of 2004. I began the group as a way to perform the music written by women to which I had recently been introduced. It seemed wrong that this incredible repertoire was not being performed by any one in the local area, and I was determined to correct that. I called several of my colleagues including my friend Laurie Monahan at the Longy School (she is still in the early voice department there, and Longy was for a long, long time THE place to study early music). Monahan suggested several of her students. I also found some players who were willing to explore this repertoire, and off we went. Being as I was and am a singer and friend of singers, I was determined from the get-go that all singers should be paid (players always are). We began by splitting the door—it wasn’t about profit!
Arts Fuse: When did you initially become interested in “women’s music” and does that term bother you at all?
LeClair: I did not become interested in “women’s music” (yes, the term does bother me) but in music by women as soon as I began to be interested in music; however, it didn’t exist, or so I was told, and so I was determined to be the first female composer. I spent many years longing to hear more music by female composers. I gave up composition until about the 1990s when I was introduced to Hildegard von Bingen. I began looking for more repertoire by women, searching through history, and finding it, much to my delight.
Arts Fuse: Who have been your role models?
LeClair: As a young person, I wanted to be a conductor but was discouraged by the men I knew. I found out about Antonia Brico, but she seemed either a flash in the pan or an erased figure. When I formed Cappella Clausura I quickly became acquainted with Candace Smith’s group, Cappella Artemisia in Bologna, Italy, and modeled mine after hers. My programming and sense of theater is very much modeled on what Joel Cohen used to do with the Boston Camerata. And as for conducting, my role model is my teacher, Simon Carrington. I think about what he would say about a piece of music or a snippet of rehearsal virtually every day. I love his gestures, which I have totally copped.
Arts Fuse: Was there one woman composer who particularly sparked your interest and led to your search for the others?
LeClair: Hildegard I suppose was the first I’d ever heard of, but she is often quite soloistic. The one who ignited the ensemble was Chiara Margarita Cozzolani: much of her music is for multiple voices and continuo, and I knew as a choral conductor I could perform it if I just got the group together. I also knew that a women’s chorus could—and should—perform these large choral works—eight parts—and it is always, in the choral world, easier to put together a group of women than it is to find tenors and basses! Our first concert was bits from her incredible Vespers—I call them the Vespers of 1650, to differentiate them from Monteverdi’s of 1610, because they are in the similar “concertate” style.
Arts Fuse: Have you noticed that the audiences for your concerts are filled with people who have come again and again?
LeClair: Once people hear this music they do indeed come back for it – it is pleasing on so many levels: it soars, it soothes, it excites, it transports. When it is done with only female voices it is positively angelic and passionate – and angels don’t just sing softly and soothingly! – and when it is sung with mixed chorus it is grand and molto maestoso!
Arts Fuse: Do you have a certain method in finding these relatively or completely unknown women composers?
LeClair: Yes, I find scholars who are unearthing this stuff and get in touch with them. I also make biannual trips to the Boston Early Music Festival exhibit and rifle through all the music there—there are publishers who feature growing subsections of music by women composers. I go there and look and often buy for the future.
Arts Fuse: What have been your most gratifying finds?
LeClair: Oh, everything has been so gratifying, because each find negates the words I grew up with: “There are no women composers.” I used to put a quote from Sir Thomas Beecham on my print material: “There are no women composers, never have been, and most likely never will be.”
I loved that, but now I’m done with being angry about this total erasure of women from musical history, and I’m just determined to perform as much as I can while I’m here. Not because it’s politically correct to do so but because this music is beyond beautiful and needs to be heard. But I’m still dismayed when I hear some mediocre male composer, or mediocre piece by a great male composer, getting so much airtime, especially on local radio, and with such great fanfare. These women aren’t being played—why not?
Arts Fuse: How many programs do you present every year?
LeClair We began with three programs per year but for the past several years, we’ve performed four. I remember, with amusement, a male musician once asking me, “aren’t you afraid you’re going to run out?” We’ve done 26 programs so far, with maybe two repeats, and there’s still more just in my personal library! We’ve only begun!
Arts Fuse: What are some of the favorite programs you’ve done?
LeClair: I think my favorites are the Cozzolani Vespers done Italian style with instrumental intermezzi, or with vocal intermezzi (we’ve done the whole Vespers both ways) and “Messa Paschale” in which we again took a larger work and broke it up with vocal intermezzi from the entire spectrum: Hildegard to Hilary Tann, i.e., medieval to modern. I also loved “A Chantar,” in which we sang songs of women trouvères, some of them macaronic (that’s a bunch of languages in one song, not pasta!), including an inner part that is in French and screams inside the whole piece about a bad marriage, an imprisonment in a convent, a lost love, an abusive husband, any number of situations these women found themselves in, and desperately sought escape from.
Arts Fuse: Have you always used instruments? Are they low pitch?
LeClair: Yes, because our first concert was the Cozzolani, we needed basso continuo instruments right away. Our back-up band has been with us now for almost nine years. And yes, we mostly play at A=415, but a cappella music can be sung at any pitch, and, like a cappella groups throughout history, we sing it where it feels best!
Arts Fuse: What else would you like our readers to know about Cappella Clausura?
LeClair: Cappella Clausura’s upcoming concerts are a great leap into a new era for us, the classical period. We’ve assembled an orchestra of some of the finest classical period instrumentalists in the Boston area playing naturally at A=430. We’ll be performing two incredible cantatas by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, a composer every bit as skilled as her brother if not as accomplished due to her gender and class; we’ll be doing a repeat performance of the Dixit Dominus by Marianna von Martines, whom I call the “female Mozart”—a lovely extended work for full chorus, soloists (CC singers are always both), and orchestra, and two stunning a cappella works by Rebecca Clarke, whose musical language predates Benjamin Britten. There will be another a cappella work by a German teacher, composer, conductor, Erna Woll, who writes very much like Arvo Pärt. We’ve asked Catherine Liddell, our lutenist, to play some intermezzi between the movements. She’ll be playing Phantasias by the latest composer for lute that we know of, a baroque composer named David Kellner, whose works are almost in the classical genre. It’s a very exciting concert!!!