Back in early-17th-century Italy, women had two options: either they were married off or they were sent to a convent. Luckily for Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, her fate took her to the latter. Confined at Santa Radegonda in Milan for her entire adult life (along with her sister, aunt, and nieces), Cozzolani not only avoided high odds of death during childbirth, but she also skirted the bubonic plague, which ravaged the country (and its male musicians) from 1629 in 1631. She ended up becoming one of the finest — not to mention one of the few female — composers in the baroque period, according to Warren Stewart, artistic director of the San Francisco-based Magnificat Baroque Ensemble.
“She was writing her music for this group of people she lived with every day,” said Stewart. “It’s very technically demanding music, very complex music — it changed meters very frequently. It’s a special, unique sound.” Stewart’s ensemble, Magnificat, will perform motets by Cozzolani at the Berkeley Festival & Exhibition, on Friday, June 11, at the First Congregational Church. He says the concert will include five all-women singers ranging from high soprano to what’s essentially a tenor range to perform the music, which back then was sung by the cloistered nuns behind a wall for visitors. “Voices cascaded over the wall like disembodied voices,” said Stewart.
The biennial festival celebrates the works of so-called “Early Music,” which includes everything from Medieval 12th-century chanting to music from the Romantic Period (i.e., eight centuries). The Bay Area has one of the oldest early music scenes in the country, and one of the biggest communities outside of Boston. “The interest in performing music of the past with a historical awareness really began in Europe,” said Stewart, citing Mendelssohn’s performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 1829. Locally, it began in 1975 with the founding of the San Francisco Early Music Society, which is co-presenting the Berkeley Festival. The festival itself was started twenty years by then-director of Cal Performances, Robert Cole.
“We just have an incredible depth of knowledge and talent for the study of what we call historically informed early music performance and study,” said Harvey Malloy, executive director of the San Francisco Early Music Society. “We perform on early instruments — either actual instruments made in 16th, 17th, 18th century, or well-conceived or well-executed replicas. Each performance that you hear at our festival will be performed on the instruments using the kinds of techniques that would have been common in earlier times. So it takes quite a bit of study but also tremendous creativity and imagination. We didn’t have iPods.”
At this point, Malloy says there has been enough scholarship to allow the scene to flourish. “It’s growing,” he said. “New programs at universities and conservatories are developing all over the country. This year the San Francisco Conservatory has a new program just in the study of early music. Of course, Cal has had a program for many years. Even places like Juilliard, which are traditional bastions of music study, now have early music programs. That’s remarkable. It’s a huge change.”
Malloy estimates there are “hundreds” of musicians in the Bay Area practicing early music; the festival will include seven main-stage performances and fifty “fringe” concerts, i.e., those self-produced by local groups and ensembles. Among the highlights for this year’s Berkeley Festival are an early music conference held by Early Music America to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. The New Esterházy Quartet will allow audience members to request any of Haydn’s string quartets (of which there are at least 68) at an event billed “Haydn’s Jukebox.” Another group is performing nothing but drinking songs. A workshop on Renaissance chanting will also be offered.
Meanwhile, the audience for early music also continues to grow, according to Malloy. “The fact that we can sustain an audience is tribute to the fact that this is a growing field of people that are appreciating historical forms,” he said. Stewart says Magnificat has also seen a “huge increase” in its audience this year, with twice as many people coming to their concerts. “It’s a challenge because it’s still considered a little off the mainstream,” he said. “Maybe musicians like that. For a lot of people, it’s something different.”
The Berkeley Festival & Exhibition runs June 6-13 at venues in Berkeley. SFEMS.org