Classical Music

Ars Lyrica Celebrates Italian Sirens And Houston Women

Female composers and musicians of the 17th, 18th and 21st centuries join forces on the ensemble’s next concert


Italian Sirens is the second concert of Ars Lyrica Houston's 2017-18 season, whose theme is "Artful Women."

"It had been on my mind for some time to do an entire season devoted to women's contributions in the Baroque age. Women don't get enough credit for what they do in music history," said Artistic Director Matthew Dirst, a musicologist and professor at the University of Houston.

"This is our year to spotlight the contributions women have made, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries as musician, composer, player, patron, muse, inspiration all of those things. So each program takes a slightly different tack."

The Grammy-nominated early-music ensemble performs Italian Sirens this Sunday, November 12 at The Hobby Center.

Below, Matthew Dirst discusses how he hopes the concert will shine a light on female composers of the past, as well as on the role of women in the arts today.


Why was it important to you to devote an entire season to women?

Classical music is a field dominated by the work of male composers and, until fairly recently, male musicians. Given Ars Lyrica's significant female presence (among the staff, musicians, board, patrons), it seemed like it was time to celebrate the musical contributions of women to the musical world of the 17th and 18th centuries, our "home" repertoire.

Do you think there are any misconceptions about women composers and artists of the past? Or, to put it another way, what would be people be surprised to know about these women?

How diverse their accomplishments were — from talented composers to singers, gifted keyboard players, pioneers on exotic instruments like the glass harmonica, etc.

Why have these women often been overlooked in music history?

For the same reasons that women's accomplishments have often been overlooked. Privileged white men have run Western society for centuries, including the arts.

What is the program, Italian Sirens, about?

It's a close look at the musical culture of early 17th-century Italy, through the lens of several important female musician/composers of the time.

The title playfully refers to those female composers, whose music you'll perform. Who were they?

Francesca Caccini (1587–c1641) was a singer, harpist, and keyboard player, whose talents won her an important position in Florence, where she served for decades in the Medici court chamber ensemble; by 1620, she was its highest paid member. She wrote La liberazione di Ruggiero (1625), the first opera composed by a woman.

Isabella Leonarda (1620–1704) spent virtually her entire adult life at the Collegio di Sant'Orsola, a convent in Novara, which she eventually served in a variety of capacities, including music master and mother superior. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Leonarda's career is the fact that she published multiple volumes of her own music, at a time when women published very little. Her opus 16 sonatas are the earliest published instrumental works by a woman.

Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602–c1676) was a Benedictine nun who ceased her musical activities after she became abbess of Santa Radegonda in Milan. Cozzolani nevertheless published four volumes of sacred concertos and liturgical works between 1640 and 1650. Her "Bone Jesu" sets one of the Latin Responsories for Holy Week and will be performed on our concert.

Barbara Strozzi (1619–1677) was the daughter of the Venetian poet Giulio Strozzi and his longtime servant Isabella Garzoni. As a teenager, she attained local fame for her beautiful singing. Not content simply to sing for the Venetian literati, Strozzi wrote and published her own music. The first woman to make her living as a composer, Strozzi favored the most popular genres of secular vocal music of her day, with solo madrigals, ariettas, arias, and cantatas to her credit. In addition to her father's verse, she set poetry by many of her city's leading poets.

Your concert almost could have been called "Houston Sirens," since all of the soloists have close connections to our city (and two of them are based here)!

Soprano Sydney Anderson, mezzo-soprano Cecilia Duarte, and soprano Alexandra Smither are all gifted singers with flourishing careers, and all are products of Houston's two leading music schools: Ally from Rice University's Shepherd School, Sydney and Cecy from the University of Houston's Moores School. Each will be singing a couple of solos, plus various ensembles on this program.

In Ars Lyrica's Italian Sirens trailer video, you say this music is "fantastically expressive" and "uses the voice in remarkable ways." How so?

There's a great deal of what one might call "technicolor" text setting, with opposing words like "love" and "bitterness" juxtaposed in the same phrase, with equally telling musical gestures. What Monteverdi said about his own "second practice" music, that "the words come first, then the music," is equally true of this repertory.

Do the female composers on this program offer a unique perspective, such as on life or love, through their music? What kinds of subjects and sentiments are expressed in their songs?

I wouldn't hazard a guess about their perspective on life, but the compositional voices of these female composers certainly fit within the avant-garde aesthetic of much early 17th-century Italian music. It's the usual jumble of mixed emotions in Italian music of seemingly any era: joy / sorrow, laughter / rage, love / hate.

In the trailer video, soprano Sydney Anderson remarks that this music sometimes has a "wink" to it or even a "knowing smirk"!

Oh yes, this music is full of wit and often inside humor.

On a more serious note, women's issues are at the forefront these days, and particularly in recent weeks regarding sexual harassment. In your personal opinion, do current events bring an added significance to your season about women?

Yes, of course. And, sure, I'm hoping that artistic advocacy motivates people to consider broader societal issues, especially now that sexual harassment has become such a persistent topic in the news.

In an Arts+Culture article by Sherry Cheng, you said: "One thing that I see in this city, the women of our city who are interested in culture tend to be the ones that drive the organizations – the opera, the symphony, the ballet, even the smaller organizations. There are powerful women on the boards and serving in leadership roles."

Based on your experience as a nationally and internationally-active musician, do you think Houston is more of a female-driven arts city than others? What would you like people to know about the women who are integral to Houston's arts community, both on-stage and behind-the-scenes?

I'd be hard pressed to say whether we've got more women involved here than other major metropolitan areas; I simply don't know the statistics on this. The behind-the-scenes personnel (male and female) are often the unsung heroes of arts organizations, especially; they enable the magic we see onstage but rarely take bows.

I'm delighted that we're honoring a number of female patrons this season as well; it helps to call attention to our support network, and hopefully serves to inspire others toward stronger support of our and other organizations. At our "Italian Sirens" concert we will honor Joan Weltzien – a long-time supporter of Ars Lyrica, past board member, and philanthropist. A patron of a number of Houston performing arts organizations, she has always felt the arts should be as well-funded as other interest areas, and that to ensure the arts continue to thrive in our city, it's everyone's responsibility to participate, even if that simply means attending a concert or performance.

Ars Lyrica Houston presents Italian Sirens, featuring soprano Sydney Anderson, mezzo-soprano Cecilia Duarte, and soprano Alexandra Smither as soloists, on Sunday, November 12, 2017, 6pm in The Hobby Center's Zilkha Hall.


Catherine Lu

Catherine Lu

Content Producer & Announcer

While growing up in Chicago and Houston, Catherine’s love for art, music and creative writing was influenced by her teachers and parents. She was once concertmaster of the Clear Lake High School Orchestra and a four-time violinist of the Texas All-State Symphony. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Catherine...

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