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Classical review: "Barbara's Venice" 

The best concerts bring genuine discoveries as well as purely musical delights. This was the case with "Barbara's Venice," the opener to Pegasus Early Music's 12th season. The Barbara referred to is Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677), a notable singer and an even more celebrated composer in a time and place that had more than its share of them, 17th-century Venice. Strozzi's father Giulio Strozzi was an important poet and opera librettist and a focal point of the Venetian culturati, and he raised his talented daughter accordingly: she studied, most unusually for a woman of the time, with one of the great operatic composers of that period, Francesco Cavalli.

And while Barbara Strozzi never wrote an opera, she infused her vocal music with operatic passion, powerful emotional expression, and colorful, adventurous harmony. She was a remarkably assured composer from her Opus 1, and only improved over her career.

But while famous during her lifetime, for centuries afterwards she was a virtually unknown figure -- the fate of many female composers. Only recently has her music begun to be printed in modern editions and performed widely. "Barbara's Venice" was my first exposure to Strozzi's music, and my first response is to wonder where she has been all my life. This is wonderfully vital and engaging music that will turn any early-music lover into an instant fan.

The Pegasus program gave a wide overview of Strozzi's vocal music, from madrigals to canzonette (lighter, less complex songs and duets) to solo cantatas. She didn't write any instrumental music, so the vocal pieces were added to by some delightful chamber works for strings by Venetian composers Strozzi would have known, including her teacher Cavalli (two of them apparently dedicated to her).

The performances, both vocal and instrumental, were of high musical caliber even by Pegasus standards; this beautiful music brought out the best in everybody. As a singer, Strozzi knew how to write virtuosic yet grateful vocal lines, and these works were full of them, performed with great style by a remarkable quartet of singers.

Soprano Laura Heimes has been a much-loved soloist with Pegasus for some time now, and she was joined by three equally impressive colleagues. Alto Luthien Brackett brought out all the drama of Strozzi's short biblical cantata, "In Medio Maris," describing Jesus's walk on the Sea of Galilee and Peter's less successful follow-up. Tenor Andrew Fuchs' bright, open tenor voice is ideal for this repertoire, and Andrew Padgett provided that dark, precisely focused bass voice sound that seems unique to early music. Individually outstanding, the four singers blended amazingly well as a quartet, and offered a couple of delightful amorous duets along the way (the texts of many of Strozzi's vocal works were by her father, and they're quite spicy, in a literary way).

The instrumental music on this program was much more than just a breather for the singers; these sonatas and canzone were delightfully lilting in their own right, particularly in the give-and-take of violinists Boel Gidholm and Mary Riccardi dancing over the "rhythm section" of David Morris on lirone and cello and Daniel Swenberg and Deborah Fox on lutes. Strozzi's accompaniments also offered the instrumentalists some opportunities to shine, for example in a remarkable passage in the biblical cantata mentioned above depicting Peter sinking under the waves.

Maybe it's just enough to say that everybody involved in "Barbara's Venice" brought this playful, passionate, fascinating music, and the fascinating woman who wrote it, fully to life.

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