Corrections or additions?
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
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
"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
Hightstown, 609-490-7550. The Baroque music ensemble. $20. Saturday,
February 22, 8 p.m.
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