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A Spanish Timbre for Christmas

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“Air: Heavenly Baroque Christmas,” an offering of Musicians of the Old Post Road at the First Unitarian Church in Worcester on December 9th and at the Church of the Covenant in Boston the next day, had particularly piqued the interest of this early music dilettante because of my familiarity with Chanticleer’s “Mexican Baroque.” That record that appeared about 15 years ago, alerting a wide audience to a large but totally forgotten repertory of imaginative and expertly written music, brought back beautifully to life. I had known of Manuel de Sumaya, choirmaster in Mexico City and Oaxaca (ca. 1678-1755; also spelled Zumaya), but nothing about the Castilian composer Antonio Martín y Coll (d. after 1733) even though he stands at the head of Volume 16 of the new New Grove. Antonio Rodriguez de Hita (1722-1787) was active in Alcalá and Madrid; Juan Francés de Iribarren (1699-1767) was choirmaster at Málaga Cathedral; Juan Cabanilles (1644-1712), well known to organists, and Joaquín García de Antonio (d. 1791), made their careers in Valencia. Esteban Salas y Castro (1725-1803) was a lifelong Cuban; Antonio de Salazar (1650-1715) preceded Sumaya at Mexico City Cathedral; Rafael Antonio Castellanos (d. 1791) was choirmaster at Guatemala City Cathedral. Just listing these names and dates gives only a bare hint of the variety and color of the music, its Christmas spirit bubbling from the texts, that this splendid concert brought forth. The performers all sounded first-rate, perfectly coordinated without needing a conductor. A lot of body language served for keeping time and evoked great sympathy and camaraderie.

The Old Posters, working from a nucleus of four, is celebrating its 35th season. I watched the Worcester event on line. A convenient, downloadable program with texts proved helpful.

The opening numbers demonstrated the variety immediately: a Canción a dos tiples (for two trebles) was listed as “Anon., possibly by Antonio Martín y Coll”, and featured the full ensemble: Baroque flute, recorder, two violins, cello, harpsichord and guitar. This was followed by a vocal duet, “Paces se han hecho” by Sumaya, and this was announced as a world premiere; it was outstanding for its adventurous tonality and a spectrum of related keys. Much of the remaining program might have been advertised as modern premieres. Sumaya’s “Ya la naturaleza redimida” was a solo recitative and aria in C major, very much like a Handel aria, elegant but in smaller proportions, and with an ornamented da capo. Another aria “Por aquel horizonte”, D major, 3/4, with flutes obbligati, by Iribarren, was comparably Handelian.

We heard some instrumental chamber music, including Cabanilles’s Passacalles III, not strictly a passacaglia, but it did include a four-bar ritornello. A Trio Sonata in D Minor for two flutes and continuo, on a more substantial scale, was composed jointly by Juan (fl. 1747-1773) and José Pla (1728-1762). This involved some serious chromatic scales not easy to finger on wooden Baroque flutes lacking the Boehm system, but we could admire both the color and the expressiveness. On a hunch, I looked up these two brothers and identified a third brother, Manuel Pla (d. 1766), whose songs with harpsichord I remember Richard Conrad singing in Cambridge in 1960.

Salas’s “Unos pastores,” a duet, aria da capo, had siciliano-style accompaniment (dotted rhythm, 6/8) with violins. Another duet, “Tarara, qui yo soy Antón,” a rapid G major in 3/8, used strophic form; its continuo , guitar and cello alone, omitted the harpsichord. “Vaya de xacará, amigos” by Castellanos, a lively, even comic accounting of Adam’s Fall and redemption by the Trinity, was also strophic, in 3/8 G minor, and almost in the vein of a fandango; the birth year of Castellanos may not be known, but he died the same year as Mozart, and to my surprise I was able to find instrumental and vocal parts for this piece on IMSLP, presumably the composer’s autograph manuscript.

A soprano aria in F major with the full ensemble, “Noble, megestuosa” by García de Antonio, had Sarah Darling exchanging her Baroque violin for a viola, but she took up the violin once more for the final number, “Gitanillas vienen” (the little gypsy girls are coming) by Castellanos, a tonally rich vocal duet, with the singers snapping their fingers like castanets.

Guests Jesse Irons (violin), Benjamin Katz (harpsichord), Adriana Ruiz (soprano), and Christina English (mezzo), plus two members of the ensemble La Fontegara: Eloy Cruz (Baroque guitar) and María Diez-Canedo (flute) joined this concert’s nucleus of Daniel Ryan (cello) and Suzanne Stumpf (flute), artistic co-directors, plus Sarah Darling (violin).

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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