La Caccina celebrates womanhood and women composers with “Matriarchy”

Sun Nov 21, 2021 at 11:17 am

By Katherine Buzard

La Caccina opened its tenth anniversary season on Saturday at Wicker Park Lutheran Church with a program of all-female composers. Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux Photography

As artistic director of the women’s vocal ensemble La Caccina, Carling FitzSimmons says she is practicing a “feminist choral leadership” style that breaks with traditional top-down choral structures by being more collaborative and responsive to the expertise of each group member. 

La Caccina’s tenth-anniversary season opener on Saturday evening at Wicker Park Lutheran Church was a joyful demonstration of this ethos, and a winning tribute to female artistry that also featured the world premieres of two ensemble commissions. The concert, entitled “The Matriarchy,” ably honored women past and present and celebrated, in the group’s own words, “the fierce indomitability of the feminine spirit” through song.  

This well-paced program of female composers was smartly divided into thematic sections. One titled “Ancestors” hailed four specific women of different eras: Harriet Tubman, civil-rights activist Grace Lee Boggs, NASA mathematician Dr. Kathleen Johnson and the young Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. Another, “Legacy,” employed songs including Alysia Lee’s “Say Her Name” to commemorate Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland and other women who died in terrifying encounters with law enforcement.

The music chosen by the nine-voice ensemble for this stylistically diverse survey was inflected with gospel, pop, folk, African, Nicaraguan, Haitian Creole and Icelandic elements. The only song by a non-contemporary composer was Ethel Smyth’s “Laggard Dawn.” In light of the program’s stated aim to “include all women from all times and all places,” more historical variety would have been welcome. Despite a relative dearth of non-contemporary repertoire composed by women, a selection by Hildegard von Bingen could have worked well here.

But the two premieres on Saturday were powerful examples of La Caccina’s growing ambition to bolster the canon of treble music with new commissions. “The Girl with the Numbers” by French-Canadian composer Marie-Claire Saindon paid inventive homage to mathematician Dr. Kathleen Johnson, featuring a blanket of repeated numbers and claps in intricate rhythmic patterns to evoke the whirring of Johnson’s mathematical mind.

The other commission was “New Dreams” by Australia-born Melissa Dunphy. This piece and another Dunphy selection, “Wild Embers,” were the compositional standouts of the night. The tight harmonies and soaring soprano lines of both works played to the ensemble’s vocal strengths and highlighted their impeccable intonation. The harmonic progression at the end of “Wild Embers” was particularly stunning.

With FitzSimmons singing and conducting when needed, the equitable feminine spirit that La Caccina seeks to embody was palpable in the singers’ communication and connection with one another, and in the joy on their faces while they sang. It was evident that this group sincerely likes working together.

Consequently, Fitzsimmons did not need to conduct much, except during tempo changes, cadences, and rhythmically challenging moments, such as in Danse Africaine by Jessie Montgomery. Her simultaneous conducting and singing was all the more impressive in this piece given its changing meters and the syncopated rhythms of the vocal lines.

Each singer had at least one standout moment as a soloist, which allowed them to demonstrate their stylistic versatility and individuality.

Soprano Carey Crows opened the program with an endearing folk-inflected solo in “Our Time/Shout” by Moira Smiley, demonstrating a clear, flexible voice. Alana Grossman brought delightful sassiness to Alexandra Olsavsky’s “What Happens When a Woman,” while Tamara Ghattas’s deep mezzo lent an earthy, grounding quality to Mist Þorkelsdóttir’s “Spinna Minni.” In addition, Rachel Mast Mohr, Lily Wirth, Madeleine Xiang Woodworth, and Lauren Iezzi each had impressive soloistic turns in Gilda Lyons’ difficult and exposed “Nahuatl Hymn to the All-Mother.”

The program repeats 3:30 p.m. Sunday, November 21 at Second Unitarian Church in Chicago.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment