On Saturday evening, Feb. 2, people arrived at Egner Memorial Chapel to watch Night’s Black Bird perform. They sat in the pews, but members of the ensemble invited them to sit behind the altar where the ensemble was set up. “It sounds better back here,” they said as more people pooled in from the pews. The result was an intimate concert in a beautiful performance space. The sounds of bass viola da gamba, Baroque guitar, lute, and voice echoed slightly in the Chapel. The members of Night’s Black Bird sat less than twenty feet in front of their rapt audience for a performance of English, Italian, and Spanish late Renaissance and Baroque music.
The ensemble is comprised of Ted Conner, Katherine Kaiser, and Elizabeth Conner. Ted Conner and Kaiser are both part of the music faculty at Muhlenberg. Ted Conner also directs the Collegium Musicum, an ensemble which also performs Renaissance works, in which he, Elizabeth Conner, and Muhlenberg students perform regularly with.
Night’s Black Bird was formed roughly two years ago when Ted Conner and Kaiser discovered mutual interests in early music. “[Ted Conner said] ‘Hey, why don’t you come over and we’ll . . . play some tunes,’” Kaiser recalls. Ted Conner played lute and Baroque guitar, and Kaiser sang. Elizabeth Conner joined on bass viola da gamba. Their repertoire includes a variety of early music, ranging from Italian cantatas to Spanish guitar music. They give local performances and have performed in Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. They have also given masterclasses at SUNY Potsdam and Eastern Connecticut State University.
Saturday’s performance, titled, “Love’s Harvest,” featured works by several Renaissance and Baroque composers. These composers included poet Thomas Campion; the founder of opera, Giulio Caccini; and José Marín, a priest who was arrested twice for murder and escaped both times. The ensemble also performed music by three female composers from Italy: Francesca Caccini, Barbara Strozzi, and Lucretia Orsina Vizana. Vizana was a cloistered nun in Balogna, in which she strove to work around strict rules about what women could compose: “She [wrote cantatas] in the style of Montiverdi. It’s very florid and very interesting,” Kaiser said.
These are not the only female composers from this era. “Women were composing,” Kaiser stated. “They just didn’t always make it to the history books.” The year 2020 is the 100-year anniversary of women’s suffrage, and Night’s Black Bird plans to honor that.
“We’ve been gradually adding women’s music to the repertoire that we’re doing in hopes that next fall we’ll . . . do [a performance] that is primarily women composers,” Ted Conner said.
Renaissance and Baroque music falls under the umbrella of classical music, but early music has something unique to offer. “This is as close in the classical realm [as one can get] to the jazz combo feel,” Ted Conner states. “[The music] is different every time because of the embellishments that we’re doing.” Early music required skills in improvisation and ornamentation. Written music was simple because of attempts to conserve ink and paper, so musicians could embellish the music with a variety of ornaments. Ornaments are flourishes that often come in the form of non-essential notes or stylistic choices. “There was an expectation that you would do that; that was just a part of the performance practice, which is part of what makes this music so exciting,” said Kaiser.
The process is different for different instruments. Ted Conner explains that on bass viola da gamba, “Liz is playing more basslines and there are written embellishments in the music . . . [with] some improvisations. When I’m playing Baroque guitar, I’m realizing a continuo.” Realizing a continuo involves a written bassline and improvising chord voicings above it.
Embellishments can show off the musicians’ skills: following a seventeenth century manuscript, Kaiser sang “Shall I Come Sweet Love” with extensive ornamentation which showed off her vocal control. Embellishments are not necessarily flashy, however: an ornament can be as simple as an extra note or a little vibrato. At Saturday’s performance, such ornaments blended into the music and contributed to the atmosphere.
The members of Night’s Black Bird performed simply, with minimal movements. They focused on showcasing the music with thoughtful attention to style and dynamics. The simplicity and intimacy of the performance allowed the music to speak for itself. The audience was attentive and silent during the songs and followed each with enthusiastic applause.
“It is lovely music,” Kaiser states. “There are some wonderful moments.”