If you work downtown, you will want to take advantage of the concert series at King’s Chapel on Wednesdays at 12:15-12:45. The concerts feature some of Boston’s smaller performing organizations and are a splendid way to spend a half hour of your day. This past Wednesday, May 31, featured the El Fuego Early Music Ensemble, directed by Salome Sandoval, in a concert of 16th- and 17th-century music from Spain and the New World. While there has been a resurgence of Renaissance Spanish sacred music in the early music scene here in Boston, this concert featured predominantly secular villancicos and xacaras. Even the few works that touched upon sacred topics had a decidedly secular musical quality. Sandoval remarked upon this, noting that it truly was a blend of the devotional and the secular, making it difficult to parse the sacred and profane in a given piece. This is characteristic of even older Iberian repertoire as well, including medieval cantigas whose “devotional” texts sometimes seem downright bawdy in their earthiness.
El Fuego features Sandoval (vilhuela, Baroque guitar, and voice), Teri Kowiak (voice and percussion) and Dan Meyers (recorders; percussion, and voice). For this particular performance, they were joined by guest performers James Dargan (voice and violin), Camila Parias (voice), and Zoe Weiss (viola da gamba). The ensemble opened with “Oy comamos y bebamos” (“Today we eat and drink”) by Juan del Encina (1469-1529). This was an excellent display of the ensemble’s strength as a whole, but also showcased the talents of Dan Meyers, whose excellent vocal characterization and muted percussion set the spirit for the rest of the concert. Camila Parias sang with strength and beautiful clarity, with a tone that was at once robust and gentle. Meyers, whose excellent work I’ve heard with Seven Times Salt, introduced the other two Encina works, “No quiero tener querer” (“I don’t want to love or be loved”) and “Cucu, Cucu.” Teri Kowiak sang with expression in “No quiero,” but at times seemed low for her range. In the last work of the set (“Cucu, Cucu”) Dan Meyers’s recorder playing was both elegant and joyful, but I found the refrain by the ensemble to be a bit sedate in spirit.
Mateo Flecha’s “Riu, riu, chiu,” a better known Christmas song, jumped in energy level, with excellent solos by Sandoval and Kowiak. James Dargan provided a profound solid bass sound for the ensemble singing but truly shone in his violin playing in Castellanos’ “Ausente de Alma.” Here Sandoval’s voice seem to truly come into its own, blending beautifully with Kowiak, whose voice seemed to glide effortlessly through the moving melodic passages.
The second Castellanos piece, “Oygan una xacarilla” (“Listen to…a xacarilla”) showcased absolutely beautiful florid vocal figurations from Sandoval and a lovely repartee between Dargan’s violin and Kowiak’s voice. The following work, “El Pícaro e cupido” by Sebastián Durón (1660-1716), had humorous energy and sophisticated characterization by the ensemble but suffered from some rougher moments of insecurity and a viola da gamba that needed retuning. Luckily, Weiss heard it too, and was quick to retune immediately at the conclusion of the song. José Marîn’s “Mi señora Mariantaños” maintained the playful and fun mood with a pantomime featuring Kowiak, Parias and Dargan. Here again, Parias’s voice brought a lovely richness that filled out the sound and complemented the lighter voices of Kowiak and Sandoval. The party was in full swing with Juan Gutierrez de Padilla’s “A la xacara xacarilla,” which featured the entire ensemble and a rhythmic vitality that expressed the text in every measure: “I bring my rhythmic song with style and flair as if a platter of the best, for the enjoyment of my fellow villains. A song so new and fun, that will make this Christmas a thousand times happier.” Indeed, there was no lack of joy or vibrancy to the music-making. The celebratory spirit of the final piece by Juan de Araujo (1646-1712), “Ay Andar a tocar a cantar a baylar” (Let’s go now to play, to sing, to dance…) reached the back of the sanctuary and seemed to celebrate the sunshine with its dance-like refrain.
My only general frustration with the ensemble is that they stood too far back. The pulpit in King’s Chapel does actually present an acoustic and visual obstacle, so the ensemble needed to move at least a few feet forward, especially given that each set was introduced by commentary. It was hard to hear the ends of phrases on Sandoval’s guitar and voice, and occasionally Kowiak’s lighter voice disappeared into the altar.
El Fuego is a group to watch here in Boston. A clear sense of programming and musical sensitivity are always critical to any ensemble, but so much more with early music that tends to stereotypically find itself labeled as having a “niche audience.” The talented members of this ensemble clearly inject a good dose of fun and joy into their music-making, reminding us that “artistry” and “entertainment” need not be isolated from one another.
Note: In the interest of full disclosure, the concert featured two former students of mine (in music history), which I did not know prior to sitting down at the concert. This possibility is always likely given how significantly our conservatories contribute new artists to the Boston musical scene.
Rebecca Marchand holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and serves on the faculty of Longy School of Music and Boston Conservatory.