November 8, 2009, at the Bedford NY Presbyterian Church
Ensemble Rebel: Jorg-Michael Schwartz and Karen Marmer, violins; John Moran, cello; and Dongsok Shin, harpsichord
Guest artists: Marta Almajano, soprano, Richard Savino, guitar, and Danny Mallon, tambourine, castagnets, and shakers
A beautiful, warm, late-autumn Sunday afternoon in the peaceful village of Bedford, New York was disrupted by some cracklingly energetic performances of Hispanic vocal and instrumental music performed on period instruments by Ensemble Rebel and guests. The title of the program was misleading; there was nothing that referred to the political powers that shaped the cultures from which this music came. This raises the question: how should such a program be billed? As “Spanish and Latin-American Music from the Baroque Era” or “Baroque Music from Spain and the New World?” The difference has to do with the way you like to categorize such unruly experiences. While the program was of the “early-music” variety, the primary impression that kept flying off the stage (actually the alter area of the resonant church) was of Spanish music that could have come from any era: the syncopated and polymetric rhythmic patterns, idiosyncratic harmonic progressions, and colors of guitar, tambourine, and castagnets, along with the inflections of the Spanish language as sung by a native speaker, fit neatly into the listeners’ expectation of what a program so titled might be like. It took a bit more effort and discernment to match that with one’s prior knowledge of the historical eras, and indeed a wide swathe of cultural history was covered by these performers. The generous chronological frame stretched from a late Renaissance “Folia” of Andrea Falconieri (who flourished just after the turn of the 17th century) through the early and late baroque periods of Gaspar Sanz and Domenico Zipoli, on through the rococo and pre-classical eras represented by Domenico Scarlatti and Jose de Orejon y Aparicio. But the primary contrasts noticeable in the afternoon’s entertainment were those of texture and genre rather than stylistic period.
Under the fervent guidance of guitarist Savino, the performers (Ensemble Rebel regularly consists of two violins, cello, and harpsichord) consistently captured a feeling of spontaneity, a freedom of expression and flexibility of pulse, and a sense of abandoning oneself to the moment that might have seemed like a cultural stereotype had it not been enacted with so much sincerity and passion. Savino is perhaps the world’s expert on the baroque guitar, an instrument that looks like an enlarged ukelele and sounds like a smaller version of the flamenco instrument; as such, he is also an expert on all the kinds of music meant for that instrument, which is more kinds than most listeners ever get to hear. What we might expect would be the solo dances of fandango, guaracha, and canario as written down by Sanz and Santiago de Murcia, with improvised percussion. More unusual was the use of the guitar in place of the lute and sometimes as a supplement to the harpsichord in the basso continuo parts of vocal cantatas, including the great discovery (for me) on this program, a cantata in Spanish by Handel, composed for the Spanish court in Naples. This work, “No se emenderá jamas,” demonstrated that the young Handel had a sponge for an ear, and was able to work in a foreign language when he was 21 as nimbly as he was later when, at the age of 29 he found himself permanently setting up shop in a country which spoke… English. And that’s not all; the Handel aficionado would probably have been unable to identify the author of this work on stylistic grounds, since Handel outdid his Spanish colleagues in utilizing metric complications of a distinctly Iberian flavor, traits not found in his other works. The only give-away (if it was one) was the very high quality of the music itself.
In fact, musical quality was a variable throughout. Works that had fascinating provenance, like excerpts from an opera on the life of St. Ignatius Loyola written in Bolivia by the composer-turned-Jesuit missionary, Domenico Zipoli, proved strangely bland. Then again, who except for Olivier Messiaen could find gripping operatic drama in the life of a saint? Even so, the substitution of the love of God for the love of man or woman which is the more usual matter for opera rhymed strangely with the emotional music-language of that period. A more convincing expression of religious intensity was found in Manuel José Quiroz’s “Jesus, Jesus” whose ecstatic and hallucinatory text is matched with music that draws fire from a folk-spirit lacking in Zipoli’s opera; but then again, Zipoli was Italian, not Spanish. This casts an interesting light on another well-known non-Spanish composer on the program Domenico Scarlatti. His instrumental work, used as the curtain-raiser (“Sinfonia para empezar a dos violinos y baxo”), had a completely different character from his more familiar keyboard sonatas in that it was a mosaic of short and dramatically contrasting sections. The imperious and thrusting performance by baroque violins and tambourine served notice that the musicians were on board for an emotionally uninhibited afternoon’s journey. It also reminded us that Scarlatti discovered the folk treasure of Iberia during his 23 years of residence there, and used it as a renewable energy resource for over 500 sonatas.
Once the elegant soprano Marta Almajano established a proper balance with the violins (it took much of the first part of the program) we could hear how she shaped her phrases with subtle variations in color and vibrato, and captured the lilt of the language accents to match the shifting metric accents of accompanying instruments. But it was the instrumental works that stole the show, particularly the improvised percussion solos that Danny Mallon magically caressed out of the limited instrumental resources with which he worked. The most electrifying moment of the afternoon came with the performance of Falconieri’s “Folia echa para mi Señora Doña Tarolilla” which began with Karen Marmer’s violin solo (improvised?) and developed with spontaneous-sounding responses from the other musicians, who prowled around each other like cats finding their favorite spot from which to howl. Guitarist Savino egged on his colleagues and the effect was a barrio jam-session. I need to find that score to see how much of this was actually written down.
Actually, Savino provided the scholarly foundation for this program; his knowledge of the music of Latin America brought to the program names such as Zespedes, Marin, Hidalgo, and Castellanos. But his scholarship took its proper place as servant to his inspiration as a performer. Antonio de Salazar’s villancico from Mexico, “Tarara qui yo soy Anton” was familiar from the concerts and recordings of Joel Cohen’s Boston Camarata of two decades ago. This “negrillo” portrays an Afro-Mexican miller boy who sings his heart out while dancing, drumming, shaking rattles and striking bells, bringing to another little boy in Bethlehem dances “from Puerto Rico and Cameroon.” He reminds us that the cherubim surrounding that cradle took the form of shepherdesses who sang their “gloria in excelsis Deo” as a villancico. This piece encapsulated the message of the entire stimulating afternoon, one that might have been echoed by Nietzsche: that the sublime does not need to be obscure, and that the most profound messages can be found out on the surface of things, right there before our eyes and ears, right where we live.