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A Fine Gumbo From Camerata


Boston Camerata kicked off its 61st season Saturday with a festive “Nueva España: Close Encounters in the New World, 1590-1690” at All Saints’ Church in Ashmont. Led by French soprano and scholar Anne Azéma, who has been the artistic director since Joel Cohen retired in 2008, the program was wider in scope than the title implied, as compositions ranged far beyond the Viceroyalty of New Spain (roughly modern Mexico) as far south as Peru and back to Spain itself, but did not include music from Alta California due to the early dates [1590-1690] specified in the title.

Afro-Spanish and mestizo cultures were well-represented by choral works in indigenous American languages (Quecha and Nahuatl), European vernacular music (Spanish, Galician, and Portuguese) and sacred music in Latin from several centuries. The instrumentation combined lively baroque guitars, maracas, castanets, and tambourine with voices, organ, viola da gamba, and pre-modern brass instruments. Some combinations of voices and instruments provided new ways of hearing traditional works (with women singing both treble and soprano tiple parts throughout), and pairings of sacred texts did not ape strictly liturgical procedures. Several of the works presented are available through Robert Stevenson’s Inter-American Musical Review editions.

Founded in 1954, The Boston Camerata is one of America’s most-respected early music ensembles, with a collaborative chamber-music approach to programming. Known for their well-researched and highly unified presentations (many of which have been commissioned) they collaborate regularly with local groups and tour internationally. This pair of performances featured a professional vocal quintet led by Anne Azéma with Music Director Emeritus Joel Cohen accompanying on percussion, a mixed “brass” quartet led by Chris Belluscio on cornetto, Richard Webster and Vicente Chavarria on organ, five women from the local Haitian choir Les Fleurs des Caraïbes, and students from the Trinity Choristers and Boston City Singers. The Camerata’s repertoire ranges from medieval song (mining the original Carmina burana from the Benediktbeuren monastery in Bavaria), through Renaissance and Baroque music of the Old and New Worlds, to American hymnody (even among the very last surviving Shakers in Sabbathday Lake, Maine). Their shows are noted for their multi-cultural and historiographic approach: a remarkable upcoming set of December concerts in Boston [here] will present Mediterranean, North African, and Near Eastern works drawn from medieval manuscripts, in collaboration with the Sharq Arabic Ensemble; the original version was recorded in 2005 [here].

Joel Cohen’s original “Nueva España” fulfilled a 1992 Tanglewood Festival Commission, and was broadcast on NPR; the 1993 Erato recording won Le Monde de la Musique’s “Choc.” [here]. Although the repertoire has continued to evolve as it has toured the world, many elements of the original remain: Juan Pérez Bocanegra’s moving hymn Hanacpachap acted as a sort of refrain for the four sections: written in Peru in 1631, the work was presented first by the professional quartet with organ, then enhanced by the full ensemble, and later recurred as a wind quartet and a lighter version for treble voices. Another of the original unifying elements was the alternation of Latin chant (mostly Spanish and Mozarabic melodies, rather than the better-known Roman tunes) and Spanish Baroque polyphony based on the same texts: Deus in adjutorium/Domine ad adjuvandum was paired with Mexican composer Pedro Bermudez’ colorful motet in the Part I of the concert. This flashy, multi-part work contrasted voices, brass, and baroque guitar: it would have been at home in Venice’s San Marco Cathedral under Monteverdi. The first section still concludes with Tomas de Torrejón y Velasco’s lively villancico A este sol peregrino. This Spanish work was probably composed after the composer traveled from Spain to Peru in the early eighteenth century: its mainly imitative, boisterous texture contrasted with more delicate homophonic sections accompanied by viola da gamba and baroque guitar.

The second section retained the meditative pairing of a Spanish Pange lingua chant from the 16th century with Sebastián Aguilera de Heredia’s work for organ La reina de los Pangelinguas, followed by the beginning of a Lamentatio set for voices (here supported by soft brass) in order to commemorate painful encounters in the New World. By choosing to use only the powerful reed pipes of the organ of All Saints’ Church, Richard Webster’s voicing of the instrumental fantasia complemented the five bright, ringing voices of Les Fleurs des Caraïbes. Their strong, bright vocal timbre contrasted with the more classical, covered sound of the other singers and provided an aural touch of authenticity, as much of this music was originally performed by a mix of Europeans, Native Americans, and African groups present in the diverse churches and settlements in the Spanish New World. Azéma described the moving Lamentation by Juan de Lienas (Mexico ca. 1650) as a “backwards-looking piece” [meaning the prima prattica of 16th-century sacred music] in that it evokes Tudor and late Spanish renaissance polyphony, with huge pauses between sections of introduction (“Lamentation”), traditional sung Hebrew letters (“Aleph” and “Beth”), Latin verses, and depictions of weeping (“Plorate”). Like several of the 17th-century sacred works we heard, the piece ends in the dominant mode, creating a feeling of tension and connection to the next section.

Part III began with a new contribution by the current instrumentalists of the Boston Camerata: Two baroque guitars (Olav Chris Henriksen and Vicente Chavarria) complemented Carol Lewis’s expressive playing of the 16th-century Spanish La Gamba for viola da gamba, realizing four-part choral texture from hand-made tablature parts. This beautiful, brooding melody could have stood on its own, due to its lyricism and virtuosic ornamentation, but this transcription for chamber trio prepared the audience for the lovely duet that followed. Que se ausenta for alto and tenor by Father Fransisco de Santiago (b. Portugal 1578 – d. Spain 1644) preceded a sweetly-sung unison Latin chant Hodie Christus natus est and a concluding Ay, ay Galeguiños (Ay, young folk from Galicia, I see him in the cradle). The eleven singers of the Trinity Choristers and the Boston City Singers blended beautifully on the a cappella Christmas chant, navigating the supple, complex melodic phrases with perfect intonation and flexibly reacting to Azéma’s gentle direction.

The concluding, but much longer fourth section featured the surprisingly complex Los coflades de la Estleya of Juan de Araujo (b. Spain, 1646 – d. Bolivia, 1712) with many reinterpreted favorites from the original iteration of “Nueva España.” Gaspar Fernandes’ “Aztec” Xicochi Conetzintle was presented as a meditative two-part treble (choral) duet lightly accompanied on portative organ, and his Si nos enprestara oy Dios for soprano and brass quartet was a highlight as sung by crystalline-voiced Colombian soprano Camila Parias. This unusual text (“Now Jesus is born in Guinea; his parents are a girl and an old guy. Let’s go there and have a look. And all the black people will dance…”) was brought to life through bouncing rhythms and lively metrical shifts. Alternating between conducting and singing, Anne Azéma acted as a second soprano in the a cappella SSAT quartet Dame Albricia Mano Anton (also by Fernandes, who was born in Portugal in 1570 and died in Mexico in 1629) and cantored both Torrejón’s A este sol peregrino (concluding Part I) and Ximeno’s Ay, ay Galeguiños (concluding Part III). Fernandes’ lively villancicos are typical of the music in that style that was often interpolated into Mexican vesper services. Tradition holds that the tempos for these works were usually quite fast, as up to eight sets of villancicos might be included during the three nocturns of Vespers at Puebla and Oaxaca Cathedrals, so it was unusual to hear Xicochi (the best-known of the three) sung slowly.

Antonio de Salazar’s lively trio Tarara, tarara featured tenor Daniel Hershey, baritone Vicente Chavarria, and bass-baritone Donald Wilkinson with continuo. Singing enthusiasm tempered with subtlety, they navigated the colloquial text (“I’m Anton, born black, come to sing the birth of the Child whom I so admire”) and responded rhythmically to Azéma’s vigorous bell ringing (“…with tambourine and drum I go to Bethlehem to dance the Puerto Rico.”). The fiery playing of guitarists Henriksen and Chavarria combined four-part voicing with foot-tapping sesquialtera rhythms, rocking between duple and triple patterns in the many 6/8 sections. Their Cumbeacute dance duet by Santiago de Murcia (1673-1739) was the instrumental highlight of the afternoon. Murcia was a guitarist in Queen Maria Luisa’s household who traveled to New Spain (most of the sources of his work are from Mexico): articles on his life in Early Music (2008) and recordings by Paul O’Dette [here] have started to shed new light on his intriguing compositions.

A thoughtful pairing of a Latin (but not Roman?) Agnus Dei, cantored by the rich-toned mezzo soprano Deborah Rentz-Moore and the ladies of Les Fleurs des Caraïbes (alternating verses), and Tomás Luis de Victoria’s complex Agnus Dei from his Missa Ave Regina brought us back to Spain. Both the Victoria and the concluding, flashy guaracha by Juan García de Zéspedes (Mexico, ca. 1650) featured the full ensemble, alternating vocal forces and showing off the impressive virtuosity of sackbut players Steven Lundahl (alto), Liza Malumut (tenor), and Brian McKay (bass).

Although this program comes across as a diverse ensemble project, with more than half of the vocal pieces sung by groups, vocal chamber music (one-on-a-part singing) constituted a crucial element of the afternoon’s success. Donald Wilkinson’s singing in the gallego Si al Nacer o Minimo ranged from light, lyrical narrative to ringing low tones that added humor to the tale. This chamber piece alternated bass-baritone solo singing with three-part polyphony, placing its composer Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla at the forefront of musical experimentation in Europe around 1610. After moving from Spain to Mexico in 1620, he became one of Mexico’s most prolific composers of sacred music, eventually leading the music for Puebla Cathedral, which boasted a larger church music program than Mexico City in the Baroque period.
Azema leads The Boston Camerata Les Fleurs, Trinity Choristers, and Boston City Singers (Tobodor photo)
Azema leads The Boston Camerata Les Fleurs, Trinity Choristers, and Boston City Singers (Tobodor photo)

Two vocal also duets stood out. In Part III, Santiago’s villancico Que se ausenta is a five-minute gem that showed off Daniel Hershey and Deborah Rentz-Moore’s rhythmic dexterity and ability to match tone. The two vocal parts shared the same tessitura (low for a mezzo and high for a tenor), and their voices wove skilfully through the complex word painting (“I go searching for my love”). In Part IV, Anne Azéma and Deborah Rentz-Moore sang the duet portions of Victoria’s Agnus Dei, which acted as cantorial introductory verses to the larger ensemble sections. This approach followed “a New World source indicating a performance by two sisters on the top lines/instruments” according to Azéma. Both singers choose a lighter timbre and more fluid, chant-like approach, contrasting with their other contributions (appropriate for jaunty popular villacicos and gallegos). Azéma has been featured on Boston Camerata’s award-wining recordings as a vocal since 1982, and her voice is still vibrant, although richer in color and more nuanced the in her early recordings. She has written that mezzo soprano Andrea Ramm, the legendary early music mezzo soprano, was a kind of mentor in terms of thinking about tone, balance, dialect (esp. through the challenges of learning to sing Gregorian chant well), and these elements were apparent in her solo contributions throughout the day.

Colonial choral music in the New World is enjoying attention through new publications and a variety of recordings now available: the folk choir Coro Hispano de San Francisco has produced two recordings (including some of the Quecha/Nahautl selections heard above) [here] the professional men’s chorus Chanticleer was nominated for a Gramophone award [here]; Westminster Cathedral Choir employs the boys-and-men sonority typical of Mexican baroque cathedrals [here]; and the Mexican early music group Ars Nova released a recording based on Magda Zalles’ research in the 1990s [here]. Maria Guinand (Venezuela) is currently editing a series of Latin American folk and contemporary choral music for Earthsongs.

This inclusive, diverse music deserves more attention and demonstrates the strength that collaboration can bring after violent encounters between peoples begin to subside. Contrasting cultural elements are clearly discernible through the music and text, celebrating a shared heritage that does credit to the many people involved in its creation.

A longtime advocate of new music, Prichard is a regular pre-opera speaker for the San Francisco Opera and Boston Baroque. She has taught courses on music and theater history at Northeastern University and UMass-Lowell.

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