The December concert presented by the Folger Consort is reliably one of the best in the city, a holiday concert for those tired of the same old holiday concerts. In some years, the group's work is head and shoulders above the competition for Best Christmas Concert in Washington, as with last year's performances of the Second Shepherds' Play. Perhaps inevitably, by comparison with that extraordinary production, this year's Spanish Christmas program, while generally good, was a disappointment.
Charles Weaver, lutenist
The programming was certainly not lackluster, bringing together rustic villancicos, learned Latin polyphony, and instrumental selections from 16th- to 17th-century Spain. The problem lay with some of the performances, which tipped the scale away from excellent toward simply good. Fine continuo work came from Charles Weaver on lute, Baroque guitar, and theorbo, especially in two diferencias, variation sets on ground bass patterns. Although the one on the first half was an arrangement of a piece for guitar, the one on the second half, credited to "Los Ministriles," was a pleasing improvisation in Baroque style, not unlike the improvised "jam" we heard Weaver lead a couple years ago during a performance with Ignoti Dei Opera. Webb Wiggins gave tasteful and understated performances of two pieces for portative organ. Overall, however, the instrumental color range was on the bland side, marked primarily by the dark tone of Marilyn Boenau's dulcian and Alexander Bonus's somewhat mealy cornetto.
A promising vocal quintet comprised of members of the Concord Ensemble, sounded best in the polyphonic selections, where individual voices stood out less. The ensemble was mostly scaled to the small, delicate tenor of founder Pablo Corá and lacked a truly convincing forte end. On the other hand, the sound was generally even and smoothly balanced, the result of singers rehearsing and performing together often. In some of the villancicos, however, single voices were more exposed, to warbly and less felicitous effect, a sound quality perhaps intended to enhance the distinction between the worlds of learned and popular music. The final villancico, Gozáos, cautivos dichosos by Urbán de Vargas, captured that dichotomy by quoting a liturgical Latin text and explaining it line by line in a series of questions in Spanish.
The final chords of the vocal quintet tended to sound underpowered, perhaps because of a lack of breath support, and some larger shapes would have been appreciated, as at the words "lux magna" (a great light), a natural climax point with full chords in Victoria's Advent responsory motet Ecce dominus veniet. A nearly disastrous false entrance in the bass part of Cum natus esset Iesus, a lengthy Gospel setting by Cristóbal de Morales, was an anomaly in this well-executed concert. (Some of the motet selections, although they do concern the Virgin Mary, are not actually proper to Christmas and seemed out of place -- Gaude Maria virgo cunctas haereses is for Purification, for example.) Some of the sound problems could have been partially due to the amplification system, more obtrusive than I have noticed before, adding an odd sonic afterburner at the end of each piece, an unsatisfactory way to augment the room's natural resonance. These criticisms aside, this program is another generally pleasing program from the Folger Consrt, just not quite a must-see event.
Tom Huizenga, Folger Consort (Washington Post, December 15)
The Folger Consort's Spanish Christmas program continues through December 21, in the beautiful, decorated Shakespeare theater at the Folger Shakespeare Library (201 E. Capitol St. SE). Also, you should not miss their annual appearance at Washington National Cathedral, this year devoted to the music of Antonio Vivaldi, including the famous setting of the Gloria (January 9 and 10).