If anyone ever doubts that the work of female composers is regularly ignored by concert promoters and orchestras worldwide, they should reflect on a simple statement from the music writer Alex Ross. He wrote: “Number of female composers programmed by the Chicago Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra for the 2018-19 season: 0.” He added that Philadelphia however does have a programme devoted to the work of Bugs Bunny, “who sometimes appears in women's clothing”. There’s such a long way to go; research shows that across 15 of the world’s leading orchestras, only 2.3% of their 2018-19 programming was written by women.

The OAE launch <i>Venus Unwrapped</i> at Kings Place © Viktor Erik Emanuel
The OAE launch Venus Unwrapped at Kings Place
© Viktor Erik Emanuel

London’s Kings Place, keen on thematic series, is attempting to redress the balance in 2019 by devoting not just occasional events to female composers but an entire year. Venus Unwrapped will shine a light on some 140 women creatives in classical, jazz, gospel, electronics and folk, while also celebrating today’s female performers. Surveying the past millennium, the centre’s director Peter Millican notes: “Women may have been written out of the musical canon, but they were never absent from music.” To underscore this, series curator Helen Wallace opened the season with works by Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677), a gloriously sophisticated composer who was also a star singer in her native Venice.

A collection of her songs and madrigals were tenderly performed by the Orchestra and Choir of the Age of Enlightenment and soprano Mary Bevan, under the carefully discreet direction of Christian Curnyn, a specialist in this era. They revealed a creative voice that is individual, boldly erotic and emotionally charged. Tears are never far from Strozzi’s chosen texts, and when sung by a soprano of the quality of Bevan, those tears seem real, unlike the tears that men so often unconvincingly profess to feel. Strozzi’s Lagrime mie, in which tears fall copiously, is an exquisite, extended agony for soprano, a showpiece that Strozzi herself performed. It follows the conventions of the age and bears the influence of her teacher Cavalli but it is uniquely feminine – uniquely Strozzi.

Le tre Gratie a Venere, in which the three Graces tease Venus about her nakedness, was a coquettish delight, one of the many boldly erotic items in an evening that dwelt on licentious pleasures, the cruelty of love and the craziness of passion.

It was a little disingenuous to label the ensemble singers as a choir. Miriam Allen, Zoe Brookshaw, Helen Charlston, Martha McLorinan, John Bowen, Nicholas Mulroy, Jonathan Brown and David Shipley are all soloists in their own right, but then they needed to be: Strozzi makes big demands on her singers with some extensive, florid writing, some of it extremely high, particularly in the duet Canto di bella bocca, a marathon for tenor Nicholas Mulroy and soprano Miriam Allen. Special mention for theorbo player Elizabeth Kenny who accompanied this with her customary refinement, and in later numbers provided some delightful cross-rhythms on her fruity baroque guitar.

Mary Bevan © Viktor Erik Emanuel
Mary Bevan
© Viktor Erik Emanuel

Venus Unwrapped is not intended to be exclusive. Millican says the aim is to contextualise and contrast the best music by women with that by men, so this first concert placed Strozzi alongside Claudio Monteverdi, showcasing particularly his Il ballo delle ingrate – part madrigal, part opera, part ballet – a cautionary tale about the hellish fate that will befall women who are hard-hearted in love.

The danger with this programming approach is that, inevitably, comparisons will be drawn. The Monteverdi material was much more richly orchestrated, with the addition of violins, a viola and bass viol, giving it a weight and presence absent from the Strozzi items. This seemed an unfair matching, given that Strozzi’s compositions were essentially salon based and intimate in nature, while Monteverdi's ballo was written for the grand wedding of a rich and powerful figure in Mantua, Francesco Gonzaga, to whom, a year earlier, Monteverdi had dedicated his magnificent opera L’Orfeo. Poor Strozzi couldn't compete with this scale of grandeur. And, incidentally, despite the excellent Mary Bevan being billed as the star soloist in the concert, the splendidly sonorous bass David Shipley actually had far more to sing as Pluto in the Monteverdi.

Finally, a note to the Kings Place management. At a concert where following and understanding the text in the programme is essential, it’s no good plunging your audience into stygian gloom. Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee.

***11