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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the February 19, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Bimbetta: Not Your Average Chamber Sound

Holly Chatham, harpsichordist for Bimbetta and its

spokesperson of the moment, stonewalls when it comes to specifics.

She knows that the official account of the five-woman chamber group

describes Bimbetta as "combining 17th century music with contemporary

theatrical devices, feminism, and humor." She knows that Bimbetta

is said to use "staging, theatrical lighting, props, and references

to 20th and 21st century pop culture." But she refuses to provide

further details. Speaking for the ensemble of three sopranos, cello,

and harpsichord in a telephone interview from her Manhattan home,

she says that she doesn’t want to undercut the element of surprise.

Founded in 1993 at the Early Music Institute of Indiana University’s

School of Music in Bloomington, Bimbetta performs Saturday, February

22, at 8 p.m. in the Mount-Burke Theater at Hightstown’s Peddie School.

Members of the ensemble are Joanna Blendulf, cello; Holly Chatham,

harpsichord, and Andrea Fullington, Sonja Rasmussen, and Catherine

Webster, sopranos. Rasmussen is the only founding member still active

in the group. Chatham has been a member since 1998. The event is sponsored

by the Community Arts Partnership at the Peddie School (CAPPS).

The Peddie program, saucily playing with a double meaning, is entitled

"Forbidden Ground;" the word "ground," besides designating

the earth below, is a musical term for a repetitive bass line. Pieces

included come from 17th-century Italy and Spain. "The `Forbidden

Ground’ program is dancy, groovy, and rhythmic," Chatham says.

"People hoot and holler, and jump to their feet at the end of

the concert. A lot of funny things happen, things that I can’t give

away. The program’s staged, so each piece tells a story. We use props

and story lines to convey the meaning of the pieces."

Chatham explains how the name "Bimbetta" met the founding

members’ criteria for a title. They sought a label that would connote

Italian music, imply the 17th century, indicate that the performers

were women, and be easy for Americans to pronounce. A catalog listing

yielded a 17th-century Italian play with the word "Bimbetta"

in its title, and the search was over. The word means "little

girl" in Italian.

"The founding members wanted to do baroque music in a way that

would reach today’s audience," Chatham says. "The subject

matter of 17th-century music was love, passion, jealousy, and revenge

— just what we sing about today."

Bimbetta’s 1997 CD, "War of Love," underscores the link between

the 17th century and the present. The first sounds are the bombardment

of artillery heavier than what was used in the 1600s. Bimbetta’s presentation

of songs about love and war has bite and freshness. The cover art

is a lipsticked mouth with teeth that an orthodontist could not improve

much. The teeth hold a cylindrical object, more likely lipstick than

bullet. The back cover shows the members of Bimbetta wearing helmets,

standing among the howitzers.

"Our perspective is that we are women," says Chatham. "I

wouldn’t say that it has to do with feminism. In the beginning the

members of Bimbetta were labeled feminists, but it’s a word that I

like to stay away from. Giving the female perspective is what we do."

Chatham points out the wealth of the 17th-century Italian repertoire

for three sopranos. "It’s a unit that composers wrote for a lot.

It’s an interesting genre and an interesting sound. The voices are

in a limited range and we do close harmony. It’s like a barbershop

quartet, in a way. In the 17th century there was a group of three

sopranos who traveled around Italy and were the rock stars of their

day."

During the baroque period, such a solo group turned to low-pitched

instruments to provide musical back-up. ("Continuo" is the

contemporary term.) "Cello and piano were one of the standard

continuo groups," Chatham notes. "It was a sonorous combination

with the bowed cello and the plucked harpsichord."

As Bimbetta’s harpsichordist Chatham enjoys considerable musical freedom.

"I play all over the keyboard," she says. "I improvise.

I have freedom of expression." Chatham uses a figured bass, numerical

indications developed in baroque times to designate desired harmonies.

Baroque keyboard players would invent melodies to flesh out the prescribed

chords.

"I work from a few figured bass indications, the rest is a blast,"

Chatham says. "There’s a big difference between playing 17th-century

music from a figured bass and playing the Rachmaninoff piano repertoire,

which is like gospel. You read the Rachmaninoff and you play the notes

that are there. When I’m playing continuo, I’m composing as I go.

What I play varies from one performance to another. If the singers

are talking about death I’m going to play with a different affect

from if they’re talking about ecstatic love."

Now 27, Chatham moved to Atlanta at age three. The enterprises

of her father, a Michigan entrepreneur, took the family to Georgia.

Chatham’s mother, born in Germany, is an executive assistant in a

pharmaceutical company. Chatham’s speech gives no clue to her southern

background. She thinks that the three years in the north immunized

her to southern speech.

There is a scattering of musical accomplishment in Chatham’s family.

Her paternal grandmother and a maternal great grandmother were singers.

"My parents had no formal musical training," she says, "but

my mom could have been an outstanding musician if she had been trained."

Chatham began her piano studies at four and a half. She started studying

harpsichord at age 18, during her third year of college. She entered

college after winning a full scholarship to Atlanta’s Clayton College

at age 16. Her undergraduate degree is in piano performance. Chatham

says that if she had not become a musician, she would have gone into

the military or into business, probably investment banking.

"I always knew that I wanted to be musician," she says. "I

have many interests, but every time I considered choosing one other

than music I thought, `But I love music so much.’ Besides, I worried

that if I chose something other than music, I might hurt my hands,

and I thought that would be tragic."

Chatham’s master’s degree from Indiana University’s Early Music Institute

is in harpsichord and fortepiano performance. She also plays organ.

Before she was 20, Chatham developed an affection for New York City.

At 13 she spent a summer studying at New York’s Joffrey Ballet. "They

wanted me to stay in New York, but I decided that ballet was not my

calling." Studying harpsichord in New York when she was 19 reinforced

her love for the city.

Chatham considers the year she spent teaching at a Virginia boarding

school as an apprenticeship for her present job at Marymount, a private

Catholic girls’ school in Manhattan. Curiously, the Virginia school

was called Chatham Hall; as far as Chatham knows, there is no connection

between the institution and her family.

"That job gave me the experience necessary to go to New York,"

she says. "I just decided to move to New York because I loved

it. I up and went to New York without a job. Then I got a call from

Marymount through a listing at a teachers’ agency and I got the job.

That was four years ago. I was fortunate and found an apartment."

In my mind I see Chatham bowling over an interviewing panel. She is

singularly direct and self-possessed. She is also refreshingly forthright

about admitting her ignorance when she has less than solid information

about a matter.

Her job at Marymount, she says, is basically choral. "I direct

the choirs at the middle and upper school," she says. "I play

for masses, direct shows from classical to Broadway. I do some early

choral music and I teach music history and also theory. I also work

in the after-school program with other instrumental and vocal teachers.

I’m busy during the school day, but I have the summers off." In

addition to Marymount and Bimbetta, she teaches piano privately, devoting

herself to classical piano repertoire.

Chatham’s commitments at Marymount leave her free to pursue her career

with Bimbetta. "Marymount lets me tour," she says. "They’re

very aware of the living arts."

In the remaining time, she travels, reads, and visits her family in

Atlanta. She lists her favorite destinations as California, especially

the Napa Valley, and Europe, particularly Italy. She reads both fiction

and non-fiction, singling out John Kennedy Toole’s "Confederacy

of Dunces," and favorite authors David Sedaris and Tom Robbins.

Bimbetta’s demands go beyond music. The members share the tasks not

handled by their management. "We switch around as to who is the

spokesman," says Chatham. The collective administrative work includes

maintaining contact with presenters, scheduling rehearsal time, and

road-managing, or monitoring transportation schedules. "Road-managing

is probably the most important," Chatham says. She speaks dryly

of Bimbetta’s non-musical necessities.

Her voice brightens and the burdens seem to lift as she talks about

the music. "All of us plan the programs," she says. "We

look at a lot of repertoire and the programs develop naturally."

She doesn’t breathe a word about developing the theatrical business

that enlivens Bimbetta’s 17th-century offerings for today’s audiences.

Those surprises will become known to listeners only in performance.

— Elaine Strauss

Bimbetta, CAPPS, Mount-Burke Theater, Peddie School,

Hightstown, 609-490-7550. The Baroque music ensemble. $20. Saturday,

February 22, 8 p.m.

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