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Early Music Festival: Hesperus

This year's Washington Early Music Festival officially opened last night, with a concert by Hesperus at St. Mark's Episcopal Church here on Capitol Hill. This church is one of the architectural gems of my neighborhood, with its incredible Tiffany stained glass window (Christ Leaves the Praetorium, created in 1888, after an illustration by Gustave Doré). The church has a great organ also, which I was lucky enough to play once for a wedding there. Sadly, only about half of the sanctuary's seats were occupied, a fact that Hesperus codirector Scott Reis attributed to the fact that the Washington Nationals were also playing that night.

There is a dangerous nexus, and this is only my opinion, between some facets of early music performance and the worst of the New Age pseudo-folk movement. Hesperus has made a career out of being at that point where the Renaissance meets the Renaissance Festival, and as a result, I was turned off by much of what they played at this concert. This has nothing to do with their abilities as players, only their intentions. The players in this group are all eminently qualified and skilled performers (founding member Tina Chancey has a Ph.D. in musicology AND plays in the rock band Blackmore's Night—you have to follow that link to appreciate the irony) and have made a lot of fairly popular recordings—some of early music repertoire, some of various kinds of folk music, and others a Frankenstein-monster mishmash of both. Their ensemble's size, four musicians surrounded by several instruments each, means that they play mostly arrangements, and these arrangements are of a style that distances us from the original music found in actual sources. (Sequentia is another group that did this sort of work, with results that were less offensive to my ears.) The performance of Dividido, with only the unaccompanied vocal part, had a refreshing purity in the middle of this program.

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Hesperus, Spain in the New World
The program of the concert was largely taken from a recording the group made back in 1988 (still available on CD, from the Hesperus Web site, where there are a few audio samples). They claim that they were the first early music group to make a recording of music from New Spain, so it is a long-held interest. Their approach, we were told during lengthy concert narration, has been to work with a group of native musicians from Ecuador, in an attempt to get closer to the music of South and Central America before the Europeans arrived. A sign of their success with this repertoire was that they were the first North American ensemble invited to perform at the Misiones de Chiquitos Festival in Bolivia.

I was most impressed with the singing of soprano Rosa Lamoreaux, whom I just heard with one of her other ensembles, ArcoVoce, at the Phillips. Is there anything this woman cannot sing? Last Sunday, it was the Polish songs of Chopin, which were linguistically challenging enough, but on this concert she sang not only in Spanish but in Indian languages like Canichana and Quechua. If she read the article by Elizabeth Kolbert ("Last Words: Can a dying language be saved?") in this week's New Yorker (article not available online), she is probably preparing a recital of pieces in Inuit languages as we speak. Ms. Lamoreaux's tone, which I described before as silvery, has a bell-like clarity, which cut through even the exaggerated sounds of Mr. Reiss's showboating on his various recorders and flutes. There are some strained notes at the very top of the range, which she handles gracefully, but her agility and accuracy, not to mention the rarefied beauty of her voice overall, are well suited to the sort of repertoire she usually sings.

The best pieces on the program were the ones that highlighted her, especially two pieces by Juan del Encina, a 16th-century composer off the radar even of most musicologists, Cucu Cucu and Oy Comamos. We heard the latter drinking song, with its parlando style of singing, twice because the group performed it again as "a true encore—you've heard it before," as Ms. Lamoreaux put it. Its text situates the piece on the feast of St. Andrew (November 30), the last major feast day, when there was traditionally a lot of eating and drinking, before the beginning of Advent, a time of fasting. However, I'm not sure what the instrumental performances had to do with 16th-century Spain, especially the sopranino solo, which although pleasing sounded anachronistic (a little too Mariachi). Grant Herreid played mostly on his vihuela and guitar, which fit very nicely with this music.

I was profoundly disturbed by a lot of the Indian music in the New World portion of the program. In the Songs of the Canichanas Indians, the texts in praise of the Spanish imperial overlords ("Listen to what we will sing today, before the portrait of Don Carlos IV, our King. With joy and contentment we will please our King while celebrating our Queen, Maria Louisa of Bourbon") creeped me out. After this experience, I think I understand a little better why, as recounted in the psalms, the Jews hung up their harps and refused to sing for their Babylonian conquerors (see my post related to Verdi's Nabucco). How grotesque to think of the Canichanas Indians singing these songs in front of a portrait of Carlos IV. I had a similar queasiness listening to Antonio de Salazar's 17th-century song Tarara, in a black dialect, which Mr. Reiss compared to 19th-century minstrel song in the United States. The religious songs, Marian ballads, and alabados were less disturbing, although the requested audience participation ("Ha ha ha ha He he he he") in Esa Noche yo Baila was a low point. The members of Hesperus are clearly having fun with what they do, and that's great. It's just not really my cup of tea.

The Washington Early Music Festival continues this weekend, with two more concerts at St. Mary Mother of God Catholic Church (727 5th Street NW): Chantry and Piffaro (Saturday, June 4, 7:30 pm) and the Baltimore Consort (Sunday, June 5, 3 pm). Ionarts will be there.

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