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Queer Swedish queen featured in upcoming events
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2017-03-01

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To cap its 30th-anniversary year, the Newberry Consort will be showcasing the life of Queen Christina of Sweden: The Girl King March 3 ( Newberry Library's Ruggles Hall ), March 4 ( Northwestern University's Galvin Recital Hall in Evanston ) and March 5 ( University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts ).

Artistic Director Ellen Hargis is the creator of "Christina of Sweden: The Girl King."

"Christina's birth gender was always ambiguous, and she displayed her masculine and feminine behaviors equally and openly," said Hargis. "She received a boy's education and adopted male dress whenever she could—often wearing trousers with a skirt over the top and preferring the flat boots favored by men. She wore makeup, but hardly bothered with her hairstyle. She rode horses astride and swore like a sailor, but was almost anti-feminist in her views about women's roles in society.

"While she was always a target of gossip, she seems to have made no effort to become more conventional—in fact, she almost seemed to delight in the fuss people made about her. She certainly didn't suffer societal setbacks because of her non-conformist attitudes, save the pressure she was frequently under to marry. She modeled herself on Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, and whether or not Christina was a virgin, she never married, although she had several celebrated affairs with both men and women."

Hargis decided to focus on Christina's life because the early 17th century is her favorite period of music.

"It was a time of huge change; of the invention of opera, the development of public theaters and the rise of virtuosity, divas and star instrumentalists," said Hargis. "Of course, the queen herself is a famous and fascinating character, but when we learned just how many of our favorite musicians she had personal contact with, it seemed obvious to trace her life and journey from Sweden to Rome, via the music she experienced along the way."

Hargis noted that the process of selecting the music for this production was easier than other productions since there is a lot of documentation about Queen Christina.

"We have records of the music holdings of the Tre Kronor Palace where she spent her childhood, manuscripts of the opera Cesti wrote for the occasion of her baptism where she is mentioned by name and court accounts of many other pieces she was known to enjoy and musicians who were in her employ," said Hargis.

Hargis explained that some of the music is unknown to modern audiences whereas some is still frequently performed today. In constructing the program, she used many of her favorite composers who traveled in Queen Christina's circle and chose the pieces from those composers that illustrated the narration included in the production.

"Sara Paretsky is the narrator of the program," said Hargis. "The readings are composed of historical anecdotes, excerpts from Christina's letters and reports from courtiers about her various visits to foreign leaders that describe this exotic young woman. As we trace her life story, we'll perform music from each country and decade on period instruments she knew: harpsichord, lute, lirone, violins and voices. We'll be projecting images along with supertitles for the sung texts, so the audience will be viewing various portraits of the Queen at different ages, pictures of the places she lived and some of the music manuscripts we work from."

"Christina was in some ways and erratic and even irresponsible, but she had great strength of character and was masterly at navigating the political and social thickets of the 17th century," said Paretsky. "For a woman of that stature to pursue her own wishes and desires against a vast array of male power figures is quite extraordinary."

Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen will be featured in the program. He is a participant in Newberry Consort's Young Artist Mentorship Program where young musicians are given the opportunity to perform alongside seasoned players and singers, gain insight into historical performance and forge professional networks in the field.

"I'm very excited to be able to work with such a world class group of early music interpreters," said Cohen. "The folks I'll have the chance to sing and play with in this concert program are among the finest devotees of this repertoire alive today and I can't wait to learn from them through the process of performing together."

Other show participants include Hargis ( soprano ), David Douglass and Brandi Berry ( violins ), Jeremy Ward ( bass violin ), Christopher Bagan and Charles Metz ( organ and harpsichord ), Lucas Harris ( theorbo ) and Erin Headley ( lirone and viola da gamba ).

"Our concerts aren't just sit-in-your-seat-and-listen affairs," said Hargis. "We perform music nobody else in Chicago puts on—repertoire we dig out of archives and reconstruct if necessary. We strive to provide multi-media context for the rare music we present, whether it's a staged presentation, narration, projected images and supertitles or something we haven't thought of yet.

"We always have an informal pre-concert chat 30 minutes before the show and invite questions from our audience. By embracing a wider context for the music, we discover how much we have in common with past societies and world views—and expand our imaginations along the way. It's not your grandparents' chamber music.

See newberryconsort.org/ for more information about the Consort and to buy tickets ( $35 to $55 ).


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