Music City Baroque was stretching its programmatic wings on Sunday afternoon, presenting a concert devoted entirely to early music from the Spanish New World. The performance at Vanderbilt University’s Benton Chapel featured a variety of works, choral and instrumental, sacred and secular. Everything was played with rhythmic vitality and joy.
The concert opened, appropriately enough, with the oldest known polyphonic work written in the New World, a Peruvian processional hymn with a name that looks like letters on a Scrabble board – “Hanacpachap.” The language, in fact, is Quechuan (Inca), and in time-honored tradition it was played at the start of the program, with the choristers at the back of the sanctuary, accompanied only by a ceremonial drum.
Murray Somerville, Music City Baroque’s artistic director emeritus, conducted the 90-minute program without an intermission, with each piece flowing quickly into the next. The concert proper opened with the “Gloria” from the Mass in D major by Ignacio de Jerusalem.
Born in Italy, Jerusalem emigrated to Mexico in the 1740s and became one of the New World’s most important composers. It was hard to detect any New World influences in this music, however, which in places sounded almost Handelian. Music City Baroque’s chorus and ensemble, with its period strings and brass, gave this music a joyous and vibrant reading.
Sunday’s program, which celebrated Cinco de Mayo, was structured like a traditional Mexican festival. These events usually began in church, so the first half of the concert consisted primarily of liturgical music. Jerusalem figured prominently in this part, with the chorus and ensemble also performing his “Matins for Our Lady of Guadalupe,” “Te Deum” and “Second Responsory for St. Joseph.” Mexican composer Manuel de Zumaya was represented on the program by his best-known piece, the lively “Sol-fa de Pedro.”
After church services, Mexican festivals tended to spill out onto the streets, where revelers performed secular songs (villancicos) and dances. The second half of Music City Baroque’s concert featured this kind of music, and it was by far the most interesting part of the program.
At this point, Music City Baroque augmented its usual period instruments – gut-string violins and valveless horns – with authentic New World percussion instruments – turtle shell drums, deer-hoof rattles and such. These instruments gave works such as Gaspar Fernandes’ “Xicochi conetzintle” a rhythmic vibrancy that was quintessentially and unmistakably Latin.
Of course, you can’t have an authentically Spanish-flavored concert without acoustic guitar. Special mention therefore goes to guitarist Francis Perry, whose beautifully expressive performance of Santiago de Murcia’s dance “Otrio canaries” was, for my money, the emotional highpoint of the whole concert.
One final note: Sunday’s concert, sponsored by Vanderbilt’s Center for Latin American Studies, marked the end of violinist Karen Clarke’s tenure as Music City Baroque’s concertmaster. Most likely, it was also the last regular appearance of the terrific soprano Terri Richter, who will be relocating to California to pursue doctoral work. One wishes Clarke and Richter the best, and hopes that neither they nor Somerville will be strangers.