Pinchgut’s latest recital boasts two calling cards. The first is Miriam Allan, the celebrated soprano and popular Pinchgut soloist who touched new audiences when she sang for the funeral of HRH Prince Philip in 2021. The second is Antonio Vivaldi's extraordinary music, written for the female orphan musicians of Venice’s Ospedale della Pietà.

Dorée Dixon and Carla Blackwood
© Cassandra Hannigan

The Pietà intrigues the modern imagination as much as it did the audiences of Baroque Europe, who flocked to hear the girls perform. A hospice for abandoned and disabled girls, the Catholic Counter-Reformation pushed music into the curriculum so that by Vivaldi’s day the Pietà had a reputation for nurturing female musical virtuose. Vivaldi composed some of his best sacred music for the accomplished young artists, causing Jean-Jacques Rousseau to gush he’d never heard “anything so voluptuous and affecting”.

Pinchgut open with Vivaldi’s Concerto for 2 Horns in F major, RV 539, performed by Carla Blackwood and Dorée Dixon with the Orchestra of the Antipodes. Playing this concerto on valveless horns is akin to an extreme sport, demanding intense facial discipline for the required embouchure. Even if the concerto didn’t quite flow into the subsequent choral pieces, Blackwood and Dixon deserve kudos for this dizzying feat.

Miriam Allan and The Orchestra of the Antipodes
© Cassandra Hannigan

Allan sang two solo pieces, both virtuosic and executed with technical aplomb: Vivaldi’s fiery In furore iustissimae irae, and his more mature Laudate pueri Dominum. Allan was famously Dame Emma Kirkby’s protégé, and like Kirkby sings with a clean, bright, and small-voiced Early Music sound. She has a vocal pliability that made her coloratura extremely lithe, giving a buoyant elasticity to the top notes where her tone took on a blooming, penetrating clarity. She is not what I’d describe as a singer dripping with passion – there was a proper pleasantness to her overall demeanour and a sweetness of tone that melded well with the instruments. But moments of drama arrived, like in Laudate pueri where, singing of sunrise, her voice crescendoed into an atmosphere of shining anticipation.

Vivaldi’s Magnificat followed, an ensemble piece featuring the female singers of Cantillation (Pinchgut’s chorus). The ensemble numbers were a highlight, best appreciated musically when understood with the text. The Magnificat is the Virgin Mary’s Biblical canticle, commencing “My soul magnifies the Lord”. The sense of a young woman’s voice raised in magnifying exultation was beautifully expressed by Cantillation’s female sound, possessing a lovely unity and freedom, and a complexity unfurling with tonal richness at the musical climaxes. The highpoint was the finale where the women sing of eternity: in saecula saeculorum. The program translation was “world without end”, but to enjoy this musically it’s worth remembering another standard translation, “unto the ages of ages”. The music proliferates from a Largo unison into a cascading Allegretto polyphony, and Cantillation joyously evoked this image of a multiplicity of aeons. Layer on layer of the phrase in saecula saeculorum spilled out from each vocal part, jubilantly sung, distinct and endlessly abundant.

Cantillation, The Orchestra of the Antipodes and Erin Helyard
© Cassandra Hannigan

Following was the Australian premiere of Dixit Dominus, composed for a rival ospedale by Galuppi, Vivaldi’s younger contemporary. The standout was Keara Donohue’s elegantly-phrased solo, sung in a haunting mezzo-soprano.

All in all, this was an engaging, fast-paced program. To the discerning ear there were tuning discrepancies that jarred the overall pitch, including between the orchestra and Allan and the horns, the organ, and Laudate pueri’s flute-voice duet. This is unusual for Pinchgut, and hopefully won’t affect subsequent performances. Also worth mentioning is Trent Suidgeest’s hipster lighting design, which playfully signifies each piece’s mood, ranging from stained-glass blue (“this one’s like the inside of my fridge”, remarked my guest excitedly), to Venetian red, to a warm church-candle gold.