Doing an intricate dance, Seicento switches directors, then back again

The 2022–23 season features “Christmas in the Late Renaissance” and J.S. Bach

By Peter Alexander Sept. 20 at 11:32 a.m.

Changes in leadership for performing organizations happen all the time, but Seicento—Boulder’s semi-professional chamber choir and Baroque performance group—has pulled a double switch that is at least unusual.

Founding, and current, director Evanne Browne leads a concert by Seicento. Photo by John Lamb.

They just recently announced a change in the artistic director position, but to fully understand, you have to go back to the founding of the group in 2011.

Seicento was founded by Evanne Browne, an experienced early-music singer who served as artistic director until 2018, when she moved to Arlington, Virginia—“for love,” she says, moving to “explore a relationship that ended up wonderfully.” Amanda Balestrieri, a long-time friend who had performed alongside Browne in early music groups in the D.C. area and later moved to Boulder, took over and directed the group through COVID.

Now Browne and her husband, John Butterfield, have returned to Boulder, and by a total coincidence it’s Balestrieri who is moving to Virginia at the same time. It’s love again, but in this case a daughter and a grandchild.

Newly returned to Colorado, Browne told Seicento’s board, “I’m available!” And so she is returning to the organization she founded.

Musical pals and alternating Seicento directors Evanne Browne (l) and Amanda Balestrieri (r)

Have you got that? Today the artistic director is whichever of the two is not living in Virginia. Mostly.

That has worked out quite well, since Browne and Balestrieri have worked together enough that they know each other and trust each other explicitly. “That’s the beautiful thing about the two of us having both led Seicento,” Balestrieri says. “Even though Evanne or I leave Seicento, it’s going to be led the way that we both think it should be.”

The two musical partners arrived at this mutual respect from different backgrounds: Balestrieri from England, where she studied German and French at Oxford, and also studied voice in London and in Milan, Italy; and Browne from a musical education in the U.S., including voice studies at Rice University and post-graduate work in choral conducting.

“We come from different emphases and knowledge bases,” is the way Balestrieri puts it. But “the groundwork is always the note.”

In early music performance, not everyone always agrees even about the note, because the mists of time have left a lot to the interpretation of the performer. That’s where the shared background puts Browne and Balestrieri in agreement about the note, and much more. Their common professional experiences have led them to a mutual understanding of early music styles, and a shared interest in exploring the repertoire.

Balestrieri and Browne ended up in the Washington, D.C., area largely by chance, performing with early music ensembles including the Folger Consort and the Smithsonian Chamber Players. As they sang together in the same groups, they soon found great compatibility as singers. In fact, Browne says, “There were times where we could adjust our voices to be so similar that even I would sometimes go, who’s on which line?”

For a while their careers went in different directions. Balestrieri’s singing career took off, while Browne worked at the Smithsonian in Washington, picking up business skills that she has used with Seicento. Then it was again mostly by chance that they both ended up in Colorado.

Former director Amanda Balestrieri with Seicento

“That’s the beautiful thing, because we were not singing and performing together for quite a while,” Balestrieri says. “I wasn’t even assuming we’d see each other again musically, but it was lovely to reconnect, because we did have that background—even though it was not a continuous one.”

The best part of the saga is Balestrieri’s move to Virginia. She was well settled in Boulder, and had an ongoing relationship with Charley Samson of Colorado Public Radio. They both kept their homes, hers in Boulder and his in Denver, but were often together.

“I have two daughters, one was living in Virginia and one in San Francisco,” Balestrieri says. “The one in San Francisco said ‘Mom, are you going to move here?’ What was I supposed to do, choose? And so she moved to Virginia to call my bluff! She had a baby last December and bought a house. I was visiting her and the house next door came up for sale.”

Thinking that she would like to have a place to stay in both Colorado and Virginia, Balestrieri bought the house next door to her daughter. “I was struggling with leaving (the house in Boulder),” she says. “So I called (Samson) from Virginia and said, ‘Guess what I did! But I have this great idea.’

“So what we’ve done is, Charley sold his house, I bought the house next door to my daughter and I’m selling my house to Charley!”

Just like that, Balestrieri will have a base of operations in both places. She hopes to return to singing in D.C., where she still has many friends and professional contacts, and she has plans to perform in the Boulder area as well, both as a visitor with Seicento in the coming season and with other people she knows in this area.

In the meantime, Browne is going full steam ahead for the coming season of Seicento. The repertoire for two concerts—one in December and the other in May—has been set. The holiday concert, scheduled for December 2–4 with a venue tbd, is titled “Seicento’s Roots: Christmas in the late Renaissance.” The program will illustrate the transition from the choral style of the late Renaissance to the more ornate style of the Baroque period. The program will feature carols that are still familiar today, including “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming” by Michael Praetorius.

The spring concert, scheduled for May 5–7, will be a 300th anniversary performance of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion, with Balestrieri as featured soloist. As far as Browne knows, this will be the first performance in Colorado of this passion setting with original instruments. This is by far the greater challenge, since it requires hiring specialist performers on the instruments of Bach’s time, but Browne is unafraid.

“Seicento needs to do this because when we do something that everybody wants to come see, and sing, then you get the response that you want,” she says. “I could have picked something very obscure that didn’t have Baroque oboes or Baroque flute players, but the joy of Seicento and the passion for the music is to find these pieces.”

In the meantime, Balestrieri and Browne both believe that Seicento has put the travails of COVID behind them and can return to the level they had achieved before. “I’m excited to see Seicento get the energy back after COVID,” Balestrieri says.

The group’s most recent concert this past April, which she directed, “had a very good feel,” she says. “The cohesion and spirit was back. The audience reviews were great. I’m just excited to see it and to be there when I’m in town.”

NOTE: The announcement of concert venues and tickets for Seicento’s 2022-23 concerts will be available on the group’s Web page.

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