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Baroque Festival in Bolivia

Jeremy Irons as Father Gabriel, The Mission, 1986The Washington-based early music ensemble Hesperus was the first American performing group invited to perform at the Misiones de Chiquitos Festival in Bolivia. The work of Jesuit missionaries in the rain forests of South America was dramatized beautifully in The Mission (1986). The musical heritage of those priests is still bearing fruit in the mission festival, and this year's installment -- the sixth -- has recently concluded. Patrick J. McDonnell's article (How they go for Baroque in Bolivia, May 6) for the Los Angeles Times offers a report:

The first attempt to set up a Jesuit settlement here amid the tropical expanses of what is now eastern Bolivia didn't go very well. Father Lucas Caballero, the founder of this town, was killed in 1711 by Puyzocas Indians who rebuffed his advances — perhaps thinking he was in cahoots with the slave traders who regularly hauled off lowland natives. By 1753, however, when Father Martin Schmid arrived on the scene, things had much improved. The lanky, multitalented Swiss native set about building over-the-top mission churches, among the finest in the Americas, and inculcating the locals with the value of European church music — while himself savoring a good tune as he spread the gospel in the jungle, setting up workshops to produce violins and other instruments.

"I live and enjoy an excellent, stable state of health," Schmid wrote to his Jesuit superior. "My life is a happy one and even joyous, since I sing — sometimes as in the Tyrol — and I play all the instruments that I like." The melodious spirit of this merry Jesuit has been much in evidence here for 10 days as hundreds of musicians from Europe, the United States, Asia and Latin America have converged for the sixth edition of what is surely one of the most unusual celebrations of its kind: the International Festival of Renaissance and Baroque American Music.

The event, which ends Sunday and is also known as the Chiquitos Missions Festival, boasts a unique musical pedigree. Along with the standard Baroque repertoire, invited groups typically perform one or more works rescued from the "lost" mission archives — almost 11,000 pages of sacred music rescued in the 1970s during renovations of the remaining 17th and 18th century Jesuit missions situated in two vast regions known as Chiquitanía (hence "Chiquitos") and neighboring Moxos. That extraordinary archive, now preserved in tiny Concepción and at another site in Moxos, includes choir music, much of it with texts in Latin or Indian languages, instrumental pieces and several full-length operas, says Piotr Nawrot, a Polish missionary with a doctorate in music from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., who has made transcription of the pages his life's work. Nawrot, who received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his efforts, is also the artistic director of the festival.
This is important work. This article was supposed to be introducing a concert by the Palestrina Choir, on Friday and Saturday. The original program was called Musica Sacra and was going to be devoted to Spanish and Latin-American sacred music. Instead, director Michael Harrison has announced that he will disband the Palestrina Choir after this final concert. So, the group will instead devote their last performance to the works of their namesake, Giovanni da Palestrina, including the popular Missa Brevis and favorite motets. If you want to hear the group before they split up, go this Friday (May 19, 7:30 pm) at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle or Saturday (May 20, 8:15 pm) at St. Rita’s Catholic Church, in Alexandria.

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