Latin American Baroque music by Juan Pérez de Bocanegra (c.1598–1631), Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (c.1590–1664), Gaspar Fernandes (c.1570–1629), Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco Sánchez (1644–1728), Juan de Araujo (1646–1712)
Latin American contemporary music by Javier Farías (b.1973), Raimundo Penaforte, Domingo Santa Cruz (1899–1987), Juan Orrego-Salas (b.1919), Christine Gevert (b.1964), Ariel Ramírez (1921–2010)
Louise Fuateux, Jordan Rose Lee, Sopranos; Imelda Franklin Bogue, Alto; Ray Calderon, Douglas Schmolze, Ron M’Sadoques, Tenors; Rafael Cotto, Baritone
Tricia van Oers, Recorder; Michael Collver, Cornetto and Baroque Percussion; Laury Gutiérrez, Viola da Gamba; Jane Hershey, Violone; Douglas Freundlich, Theorbo and Vihuela; Ian Watson, Organ; Carlos Boltes, Charango, Ronroco, Viola; Scott Hill, Guitar; Marcelo Peña, Quena; Roberto Clavijo, Zampoña, Bombo, Percussion
The Crescendo Choir and Vocal Ensemble
Christine Gevert, Conductor
Christine Gevert, the indefatigable choral conductor, early music specialist, harpsichordist, and composer, consistently makes her mark in producing unusual and meticulously prepared theme-centric vocal concerts. In the past, we’ve heard rarities of the Mendelssohns (Felix and Fannie), a U.S. premiere of Telemann’s impressive oratorio the Hamburische Kapitänsmusik, and tonight, an exotic syncretism of indigenous Latin America culture and seventeenth-century western European Christianity. Acculturation and assimilation, in the wake of Spanish and Portuguese conquests, created a body of “New World” Baroque music which, while clearly bearing the harmonic, melodic, and formal structures of the invading culture, is, nevertheless, redolent of the tropics and Indian musical elements.
Throughout a period of nearly two centuries, the Catholic Church’s colonial establishment required an aesthetic outreach as well as the obvious institutional, civic, and educational infrastructures. The villancico, a loosely-defined strophic vocal and instrumental form, was already established in the Spanish homeland as a vehicle to blend folk dance rhythms and vernacular songs into established classical forms. Ms. Gevert, in her detailed program notes, regards most of the music presented tonight as one form or another of the villancico. One could then suppose that the primarily homophonic textures, occasional
antiphonal treatments, and solo verses with choral refrains were the musical elements that unified the music of the nearly four hundred years between this concert’s first half (sixteenth- and seventeenth-century) and the program’s second half (twentieth- and twenty-first-century). Besides the unifying villancico genre, the inclusion of both ancient European and Indian instruments added to what Ms. Gevert so accurately asserts is a “Latin American Fusion.” Prior to the concert, we were treated to a demonstration of each of the more unusual instruments used this evening. Michael Collver demonstrated the cornetto or zink, found in much early Baroque western music (think of the opening of Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine or Orfeo). His perfect intonation and articulation were a pleasure to hear since in the wrong hands or lips this instrument can sound like a moribund duck. Douglas Freundlich demonstrated the vihuela, a guitar or lute relative, which has a pungent timbre in a more confined dynamic range. Then there were the exotica from the “New World”: Chilean artist Carlos Boltes demonstrated the charango – a tiny, chatty-sounding, treble guitar-like affair formed from an armadillo shell, and, as well, a ronroco, another guitar relative. Marcelo Peña, a native of Boliva, played the seductive and mellifluous Andean flute, the quena. The Andean pan pipes, the siku or zampoña, was thrust into popular cinema culture appearing as it did in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre. The pipes were originally intended to be played by two women in tandem, each with a single rank of pan pipes tuned in alternating pitches. Here, as in Herzog’s film, the zampoña was played by one person with two ranks of pipes. Roberto Clavijo, a Chilean musician, performed on this colorful instrument, as well as on an Indian drum, the bombo. Added to these gaudy sounds were those of more conventional Baroque instruments: recorders
(Tricia can Oers), guitar (Scott Hill), violone (Jane Hershey), viola da gamba (Laury Gutiérrez), and positive organ (Ian Watson).
More exotic than the mix of Old and New World instruments, or the syntheses of musical forms, were the striking texts of these pieces, reflecting as they do the social and historical fabric of life in the context of conquest, subjugation, assimilation, and, ultimately, cultural synthesis. If any texts could benefit from “deconstruction” of their layers of race, slavery, sexuality, and the perfidies of social castes, it would be these seemingly innocent and pious vilancicos. Perhaps the most unsettling text was in the vilancico by Portuguese-born composer Gaspar Fernandes. His “Eso rigor e’repente” (“That Sudden Hardship”) evokes a seemingly insouciant Christmas scene in which children of one Negro strain (lighter Guinean blacks) declare their racial precedence over the darker, more socially “undesirable” Angolan blacks:
That sudden hardship! Certainly here I’m not favored.
But although the child was born a little white one,
We all amount to brothers.
. . .
Play, black children, play the little drum.
Sing, brothers and sisters!
. . .
Tonight we’ll all be white!. . .
Don’t let the Angolan blacks go because they’re unpleasant-
(Excerpts from the translation by Juliet Mattila in the concert program notes)
The text – a patois of Spanish, Portuguese, and West African dialects – set to perfectly disarming and delightful music, gives one a sobering cultural jolt.
The arrangement of works in the first half (i.e. the Baroque compositions) I believe was organized in ascending order of musical sophistication rather than by textual or occasional affiliation. The pieces were also grouped by composer. Thus, the primitive Quechuan processional “Hanacpachap Cussicuinin” (“Oh God, Joy of the Universe”), an anonymous work attributed to Juan Pérez de Bocanegra and one of the earliest extant polyphonic works in the New World, stood in raw contrast to the sophisticated and ecstatic “Fuego de Amor” (“Fire of Love”) by Juan de Araujo that closed the first half.
In some ways, the textual transitions of these works, e.g., starting from the Quechuan processional evoking “column of ivory, mother of God! / Beautiful iris, yellow and white. . ./ Show us the fruit of your womb” to the mournful “Stabat Mater” by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (“At the Cross her station keeping, stood the mournful / Mother weeping, close to Jesus to the last”) while encompassing so much of the human tissue of Christian worship, were jarring in their juxtapositions. Likewise, the next piece, Fernandes’s Aztecan lullaby, with its infectious rocking and lulling hemiolia, seemed a very strong emotional contrast. For my taste, I would have preferred that the Baroque compositions be presented or selected with more “affective” unity or association. Perhaps, rather than separating the Baroque and contemporary pieces, interspersing them in both concert halves might have been more effective.
Ms. Gevert, who grew up in Chile, received her bachelor’s degree from the Conservatorio Nacional de Chile. Having also been trained in Europe, she has a unique perspective on this “fusion” repertory. As related in her program notes, the musicologist Samuel Claro (with whom she studied) was largely responsible, together with Robert Stevenson, for anthologizing these colonial rarities from Central America in the 1960s. Thus, Ms. Gevert brought a special authority and breadth to this evening’s offerings. It is doubtful that any other musician in this region could have mounted such a daunting and fascinating program. A composer as well, Ms. Gevert provided a setting of the 104th Sonnet of Petrarch, in which Franz Liszt had found inspiration. This work was featured, along with those of other contemporary Latin American composers. The most ambitious of these recent works was Javier Farías’s 2009 setting of Pablo Neruda’s ecstatic, symbolist yet Whitmanesque poem “Oceana.” Brazilian composer Osvaldo Golijov has also set this extraordinary poem. The Farías setting is equally ambitious. Incorporating choral “whispering,” much is also made of popular and somewhat sentimental Latino idioms introduced by extended rhapsodic viola and guitar sections. After the third Canto (“and the sea stretched into emptiness”), there is a near dissipation of choral forces. A recitation, marking the second section, is accompanied with viola, guitar, and charango. This is followed by a celebratory, dance-like final section (“Oceana, my soul, Southern amber, grace”). Raimundo Penaforte’s 2008 Hallelujah for male choir, viola, and guitar made effective use of choral “blurring” and dissonance; the introduction of guitar and viola here was more contrapuntal, less sentimental than in the Farías. But perhaps the most haunting addition to the piece was the recitation by female voices of names of women who died serving in Iraq. Domingo Santa Cruz’s and Juan Orrego-Salas’s works, while certainly more conventional than the Farías and Penaforte, seemed the least interesting, and, possibly, could have been expended to downsize the lengthy second half. Then too, the Christmas and Nativity texts seemed awkwardly out of place in the company of more sophisticated fare. Ms. Gevert’s composition, while rooted in Renaissance polyphony, made interesting use of Gesualdo-like word coloring and dissonances, adding a solo viola to underscore Petrarch’s laments to the mysterious woman, “Laura,” who, on Good Friday, 1367, after luring a love-struck Petrarch away from a life in the clergy, became an obsessive subject of his unrequited passion. A jubilant “Gloria a Dios” from the Misa Criolla by Ariel Ramírez ended the evening with tenor soloists, chorus, and a band of Andean instruments.
While most of the works called for choir and instruments, some concertato works featured solo vocals. From the group of seven soloists, I was greatly impressed with Imelda Franklin Bogue, who possesses a true contralto voice, expressive, rich, yet clarion and bright in the higher registers. She, and the velvety sounding baritone, Rafael Cotto, were especially appealing in Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco Sánchez’s luminous “Desvelado dueño mío.” Soprano Lousie Fauteux was brilliant in the grand “Feugo de Amor,” but the three accompanying choirs and instruments gave her some tough acoustic competition. Tenors Ray Calderon, Douglas Schmolze, and Ron M’Sadoques were perfect in the final excerpt from the Misa Criolla.
With Ms. Gevert’s innovative programming and her thoroughly prepared forces, the Crescendo concerts never fail to impress. The program booklets, while economically printed, have extensive musicological detail; they cover the music’s historical context and provide biographies of these obscure composers. Juliet Mattila’s poetically minded (and voluminous) translations, from Quechuan to Portuguese, set a new standard for choral concert take-homes.
However, one could wish that Ms. Gevert had shuffled the old works with the new or grouped the works in a different thematic way. And while it’s almost sinful to want fewer pieces on a program, I would love to have had some of the Nativity works reserved for a different, seasonally appropriate concert. A Christmas concert performed in Great Barrington, in which there a sizeable Latino population (and potential audience), would be truly special in the hands of Ms. Gevert and her dedicated musicians.