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Orchestra of New Spain @ NGA

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Madrid 1752: Sacred Music from the Royal Chapel of Spain (music by Courcelle, de Nebra), Madrid Barroco, Grover Wilkins

Review (Classics Today)
The Ionarts Baroque Weekend™ offered the chance to hear two of the best historically informed performance (HIP) ensembles in the world, with Tafelmusik on Friday and Ensemble Matheus on Saturday. Those experiences offer a context in which to place the Sunday evening performance by the Orchestra of New Spain at the National Gallery of Art. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the Fulbright Program in Spain, and the ensemble featured is led by Grover Wilkins, a conductor who got his start in archival music research while on a Fulbright in Spain in the 1990s. His work with the Texas-based ONS and a partner group in Madrid has been focused on unearthing and performing forgotten works of 18th-century Spain. Certain wags will quip that forgotten music is usually forgotten because it is so forgettable. True, the obsession of musicologists with editing unknown music and hearing it performed is akin to how an entomologist friend reacted to seeing the insect collections at the Smithsonian. She might go berserk over a specimen of Eustypiura bicolor Ashmead, while a normal person might see only boxes and boxes of dead bugs.

Hence, my delight in hearing the exceptional and worthy music of two relatively unknown composers: Francisco Courcelle (1705-1778), an Italian-born musician who came to Madrid to lead the boys' choir of the Royal Chapel and court orchestra, and his Spanish colleague at those institutions, José de Nebra (1702-1768). The latter's sacred music and zarzuelas have been recorded more in recent years, while the former is more obscure. One of Courcelle's settings of the Lamentations for Holy Week (the second reading for Holy Thursday) was a revelation of this composer's mastery of the Italian styles of his early years, sounding very much in the vein of Arcangelo Corelli's works in the trio sonata format. Soprano Eugenia Ramírez and tenor Scot Cameron (struggling at times to reach the alto part's high ranges) soared against one another in interweaving and tightly controlled dissonance.

The same composer's motet (for Easter or Christmas?) Mortales cantate featured Cameron's pure, floating voice to beautiful effect down in the traditional tenor range, with the interesting sounds of Spanish-inflected Latin ("Loo-thay" for luce, for example) adding to an attractive palette. Although a blind listener might guess the composer of this piece to be, say, Handel (thanks partially to the horn writing), there was a half-step sighing motif in the violas (the rejoicing of the angels?) that stood out as individualistic. De Nebra's recitative and aria for Assumption Suavidad el aire inspire (the blind listener might guess Vivaldi) was a good vehicle for Ramírez's throatier tone. Although her voice colored flat if an intense edge was too firmly applied, she added intriguing embellishments on the da capo and the piece is enlivened by expressive strings of suspensions and, at times, a sinuous descending chromatic bass line.

Other Reviews:

Cecelia Porter, Orchestra Of New Spain (Washington Post, February 11)
By comparison to the international groups heard earlier this weekend, however, this was a tame, even fusty performance, with the odor of formaldehyde in the air. The playing was competent, mostly accurate (with problems in the horns), but rather uniform and grayscale. On the second half, the problem was at least partially the music, three tonadillas for Spanish theaters, comic intermezzos of witty banter and generally simple music performed for unruly crowds at intermission. With the Spanish spoken text translated into English and little attempt to sell these pieces as broad comedy, the performance had the staid feeling of a museum exhibit. (For an example of how to revive this kind of music properly, see my reviews of similar Neapolitan repertoire by the Cappella dei Turchini.) A guitar too faint to hear and slightly clumsy, rhythm-obscuring castanets did little to increase the charm. Admittedly, this music had a certain musicological interest, but it will need more than that to find a larger audience.

The next free concert at the National Gallery of Art is an important one: the Juilliard String Quartet playing works by Beethoven, Elliott Carter, and Verdi (February 17, 6:30 pm). You are advised to arrive early, as competition for seats could be fierce.

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