As with other musical organizations in C-U, Baroque Artists of Champaign-Urbana was deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was my pleasure to hear them once again in their June 5 concert at Holy Cross Church in Champaign.

This concert, entitled “Behind the Walls: Music from the Italian Convents,” offered performances of music composed by Italian nuns in the 1500s and 1600s.

The lovely Baroque styling of Holy Cross Church was a fine match for this music, in part from the Baroque period, and I remembered with pleasure the Christmas concerts given by BACH there, under the direction of the group’s founder, Chester Alwes.

The leadership of BACH has changed this year. Joseph Baldwin, who succeeded Alwes in 2017, left the ensemble in 2021, and the new director is Sarah Riskind, who is currently Director of Choral Activities at Eureka College. She holds graduate degrees from the University of Washington and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and her specialty is Renaissance Polyphony.

The Catholic nuns in Italy at the time of the Counter-Reformation had a hard time with male ecclesiastical authority.

At the time of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), there was deep concern about what kind of music was appropriate in Catholic churches, and also whether the pursuit of musical activities for nuns was a distraction from their religious vocations.

In Sarah Riskind’s illuminating notes to this concert, the embodiment of male repression was Cardinal Carlo Borromeo (1538-1584), who, as bishop of Milan, passed decrees such as forbidding men to be organ teachers in convents.

Oddly enough, Borromeo plays a near-heroic role in Hans Pfitzner’s opera “Palesrina” in getting that composer to write his “Missa Papae Marcelli,” a work that supposedly won over the Papal authority to allowing polyphonic treatment of the text of the Catholic Mass.

In any case, the resourceful Italian nuns found ways to smuggle male teachers through those convent walls.

The concert started with the only wholly instrumental piece of the evening, a Sonata No. 3 by perhaps the best-known composer on the program, Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704).

Many changes of tempo lent variety to this charming piece, played skillfully by violinists Emeldina Escobar and Ion-Alexandru Malaimare, cellist Barbara Hedlund, and organist Jonathan Young.

These instrumentalists provided stylistically appropriate accompaniment to the works on the first part of the program.

All the pieces on the first part of the program were settings of Latin texts.

The first of them, Leonarda’s setting of the “Magnificat” (Mary’s reaction to the news that she would bear the Christ child), was considerably shorter than, for instance, the treatment of Sebastian Bach, but Leonarda was able to give each group of verses a special character in this highly pleasing performance by the BACH singers, expertly led by Riskind.

In the first half of the concert, many singers of the BACH chorus excelled in solo roles in these works.

The three selections by Maria Xaviera Peruchona (c. 1652-after 1709) tended to present the religious life as a battle, and in her third piece, the last before intermission, “Cessate tympana, cessate praelia” (“Cease, drums! Cease, battles!”), the full BACH chorus was dramatically forceful in their interaction with the instrumentalists.

The first part of the program was mainly music from the 1600s (the beginnings of the Baroque period). In the second half, the works were from the 1500s (Renaissance period), and were mostly sung in Italian.

Generally, when nuns set texts which speak of “love,” the love is divine.

Two selections on this part of the program described the joys and sorrows of human love, and their author was Maddalena Casulana (c. 1544-1590), not a nun, but a pioneer in being the first woman in Western Civilization to have a whole book of her music published.

I found her pieces, as empathically sung by BACH, had a special daring and elan in the contrapuntal treatment of her texts.

The last selections of the program were settings of the Biblical “Song of Songs” in which the beloved was praised as “The rose of Sharon,” as “Like a dove above the streams of water,” and “the lily among thorns.”

These sentiments may have been composed behind walls, but as sung with passion by BACH, and conducted with such scholarly expertise as Riskind’s, they found their way into the feelings of many at that concert.

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John Frayne hosts “Classics of the Phonograh” on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. His email is frayne@illinois.edu.

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