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Folger Consort's 'Christmas in New Spain'

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Villancicos y Danzas Criollas, La Capella Reial De Catalunya, J. Savall
(Alia Vox, 2004)
If you are looking for a Christmas concert without the music you dread hearing each December, the Folger Consort is a good bet. Their program this year, devoted to music from New Spain, hits all of those targets again, with a selection of music that is almost entirely unfamiliar, if without any major, life-altering discoveries. Heard at the first performance last night, this concert features six singers from Washington National Cathedral's ensemble Cathedra, supported by seven instrumentalists. It is a rather mellow affair, trading more on an easy, suave rhythmic vibe than on virtuosity or ultra-refinement.

A contrast between high and low musical cultures was built into the program, with examples of more learned polyphony, by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (c. 1590-1664) and Pedro Bermudez (d. 1606), bookending popular villancicos and dance music. That such opposite styles coexisted, both composed by musicians who served in cathedrals in Mexico and Peru and elsewhere, reveals something about the mixture of cultures in the Americas. Oddly the opening work, Padilla's Exultate justi, sets a Latin text not proper to Christmas at all: its joyful tone, drawn from Psalm 32, was heard either in Easter or on feasts of apostles. Padilla drew out the exclamatory nature of the words through text painting, most notably in the phrase "Bene psallite ei in vociferatione" (sing well unto him with a loud voice). Like his setting of the Gloria, from the Ordinary of the Mass, Padilla's style was fairly simple and homophonic, effective but not all that striking. The most memorable of the Latin-texted pieces was the lovely six-voice Salve regina by Bermudez, in an alternatim style that paired elaborate and extensive polyphonic verses with a decorated form of the Marian antiphon's chant melody.

Other Reviews:

Simon Chin, ‘Christmas in New Spain’ offers an evening of spirited, cheerful tunes (Washington Post, December 16)
This set the popular pieces in stark relief, with texts that seemed to mix vestiges of pre-Christian celebrations with the European traditions of Christmas. The frankness of racial identity ("Let's go, blacks of Guinea, to the manger alone, / Not with the blacks from Angola -- they're all ugly!") can be shocking, as can the transparent social stratification of colonial society ("I promise this little child that although born a little white / All of us are his family. We are not afraid of the white man"), but the infectious charm of the music, and the vivacious joy with which it was performed, were hard to resist. While many of these pieces are of humble cloth, musically speaking, a few were quite affecting, like the charming "Xicochi conetzintle" by Gaspar Fernandes (c. 1570-c. 1629) and "Las coflades de la estleya" by Juan de Araujo (1646-1712). Because too many of the singers are friends and people I have sung with before, I am not really offering any thoughts on the specifics of the singing, but the instrumental contributions were excellent, especially the improvisations on ground basses led by Charles Weaver on Baroque guitar.

This concert will be repeated several times, through December 22, at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill.

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