On Cinco de Mayo, the always-enterprising Bach Sinfonia was the only source in town for Mexican classical music, presented as part of a fun program spanning Ye Olde Latin America and titled “¡Nuevo Mundo Barocco!”
It turns out that not only did Latin Americans write a lot of music during the colonial period, much of it has gone undiscovered until quite recently. Intrepid scholars have plumbed the archives of the churches and abbeys established throughout the Spanish New World, and they’ve come up with some gems that mix the musical language of the old church with (as one might expect from a group of proselytizers) the vernacular forms and rhythms of the locals.
Under conductor and artistic director Daniel Abraham, the Bach Sinfonia always has a sure feel for rhythm: how it underpins a slow melodic line, organizes a fast allegro, establishes a kind of loom on which fantastic counterpoint can be woven. In this music, where such an understanding is even more important than in the European Baroque, that ability made for some really fun performances, where difficult rhythms came off with flair and difficult singing always felt exuberant.
The latter virtue shone in the first pieces the program, two pieces by Francisco López Capillas in a high-Renaissance style but with just the slightest hint of additional rhythmic impetus, sounding silky as sung by the eight-voice choir. They kept the fine sound in “Vayan unas especies,” a piece by Cuban composer Esteban Salas, whose rowdy rhythms made a joyful noise unto the newborn Christ. Abraham sounded taken with Salas, saying the Sinfonia was ready to read through his other works, and no wonder; Salas seemed to find new ways to make melodies within the Baroque context, and his harmonic invention matched his rhythmic drive. He’s a find.
Guest guitarist Richard Savino normally rolls with (among others) his own Latin America-focused chamber group, El Mundo. On Sunday he joined the stalwart Sinfonia continuo — Joseph Gascho, harpsichord; Douglas Poplin, ‘cello; and Robbie Link, violone — and added color and depth with his several strings, plus a deep understanding of this repertoire. (Not for nothing did he participate with Abraham in the pre-concert discussion!) He also played a couple pieces in the improvisatory tradition to begin the second half of the program, demonstrating the range of color his guitar could produce when solo.
Unlike Savino, soprano soloist Jennifer Ellis Kampani‘s contributions were front and center whenenver she was on stage. I am on record with my admiration for her singing, which combines thrilling sustained notes, pure and accurate, with vocal agility all the way up and down the scale and admirable diction. Here she got to be a little more demonstrative than in (say) a Bach cantata, and she enjoyed the opportunity, tweaking the chorus of Juan de Araujo’s “Los coflades de la estleya” subtly each time she sang it to wring out a new dimension of excitement and joy, or snapping her neck back and forth to emphasize the rhythms of Antonio de Salazar’s “Tarara tarara qui yo soy Antonyio.”
You always get the sense that Kampani has a tremendous amount of fun when she sings, and never was that impression stronger than the finale of this concert, when we got another Christmas song, this one by Mexican composer Juan García de Zespedes and packed with ecstatic exclamations and hard-driving rhythms. Michelle Humphreys, who did excellent work all afternoon on percussion, played a commanding solo with every resource available to her (including bells strapped to her ankle), Kampani and the chorus threw themselves into all the “Ay!”s, and the instrumentalists matched them in exuberance and precision. Let’s hope scholars can give the Bach Sinfonia lots more of this stuff to perform, even if they have to do it on a day other than May 5th.
A THING I LIKED AND A THING I DIDN’T LIKE
Liked: As someone who has attended (for example) a concert of Estonian choral music on St. Patrick’s Day, I found it refreshing that this concert, although it featured music around 300 years old, actually referred to something happening in the world today.
Didn’t Like: The translations of these texts in the program made me wonder why they bothered to have translations at all. Here’s one stanza from Salas’ piece:
If that is the tinted Carnation
that gives new giving magic:
ours is to make disciplined a
It’s like someone put the texts into Google Translate and cut and pasted the results directly into the program.