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Exsultemus’s Delightful Unfamiliar Christmas Music


In a program of  Renaissance and Baroque Christmas music from Spain and the New World presented by the ensemble Exsultemus on Friday, December 9th, at the First Lutheran Church of Boston, pieces by Tomás Luis de Victoria, the four-hundredth anniversary of whose death is celebrated this year and who spent most of his career in Rome before retiring to Madrid, was sandwiched between works in a lighter, more popular style by relatively unknown composers who toiled in remote corners of Latin America. Their music survives in libraries in Peru, Bolivia, and Mexico, and has been unearthed in recent decades by diligent scholars in search of fresh repertory. Singing without conductor, the Exsultemus singers and players showed themselves to be as perfectly attuned to one another as they were to the varied styles and textures displayed in this evening of tuneful and delightfully unfamiliar music.

In Spain, devotional texts were often set as villancicos, refrain songs in the vernacular that had their secular origin in medieval dance tunes. Spiced with  elements of local Indian or African-American dialects and rhythms in the colonies, villancicos were performed  before mass on special feast days or even inserted into the liturgy itself. In the lighthearted song that opened Friday’s program, a recurrent refrain “Attención! Silencio!” invited believers to celebrate of the birth of the Christ Child. Shannon Canavin’s light and flexible soprano was paired with Shari Alise Wilson’s somewhat darker yet equally agile voice, the continuo accompaniment ably provided by Andrus Madsen, chamber organ, and Emily Walhout, Baroque cello. The Spanish-born composer of this piece, Antonio Durán de la Mota (ca. 1672-1736), worked in the silver-rich mountain town of Potosi in Bolivia. Domenico Zipoli 1688-1726), born and trained  in Italy, served as a missionary in the Indian villages established by the Jesuits in Paraguay. His Latin hymn, Jesu, corona Virginum, consisted of solo verses for soprano (Shannon Canavin) and alto (sung by countertenor Martin Near); in the final stanza, the two were joined by tenor Michael Barrett.

In a charming villancico by the Mexican composer Antonio de Salazar (1650-ca. 1715), Anthony the Moor proposes to celebrate the birth of Jesus by dancing a “Puerto Rico” and a “Cameroun.” Pizzicato cello imitated the sound of his bells and tambourine, the percussive plucking a foil for the flowing lines of the vocal duet sung by Wilson and Near. The anonymous Latin hymn Volate angeli was found in the archive of Chiquitos in eastern Bolivia. Here stanzas for two sopranos in dialogue were interspersed with instrumental ritornellos for violin (Katherine Winterstein), cello, and harp. Nancy Hurrell played a copy of a 1704 Spanish arpa de dos órdenes, a wonderfully sonorous instrument with 47 strings in two rows, which provided percussive articulation to the ensemble. In Los que fueren de buen gusto (All those who have good taste), by the Mexican composer Francisco de Vidales (ca. 1630-1702), three singers (Canavin, Wilson, and Near) told the story of the nativity in the style of a rustic xácara dance in wildly syncopated rhythms. Bass-baritone Paul Max Tipton joined the ensemble in the joyous carol — accompanied only by the ringing tones of the harp — by the Franciscan friar Gerónimo Gonzales that concluded the first half of the program.

After the intermission it was time for a complete change of style and texture in a group of late Renaissance motets sung a cappella. Pedro Bermúdez (ca. 1558-1605?) was born in Granada but, after a rocky career in Spain, spent the last years of his life in the New World. In his four-voice motet Christus natus est nobis (Christ is born for us) Canavin, Near, Barrett, and Tipton joined in a beautifully balanced ensemble. The two works by Victoria,  the dean of Spanish polyphonists, brought further  textural contrast. The hymn Christe Redemptor omnium (O Christ, redeemer of all people) was set alternatim style: the odd-numbered verses intoned by Canavin in unaccompanied Gregorian chant, and the even-numbered verses set in elaborate polyphony for varying combinations of three or four voices. All five singers participated in Victoria’s Gaude Maria virgo (Rejoice, Virgin Mary), the two sopranos carrying a sustained canon at the unison against the more active lower parts.

The three final numbers returned to a more popular style. The anonymous carol Tierno Infante divino (Tender divine child), was a strophic song for two sopranos with instrumental interludes, its graceful melodic lines echoed from one voice to the other. Roque Ceruti (ca. 1686-1760) was born in Milan but served for more than 50 years in cathedrals in Peru. His xácara told the Christmas story in a lively strophic song for two sopranos, two violins (Winterstein and Emily Dahl) and continuo. Ceruti’s Hoy la tierra produce una rosa (Today the earth produces a rose) concluded the evening on a joyful note.

Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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