Choral Review: Enterprising concert of choral music from Mexico
By George Yeh
Unlike its opening concert this season which featured music from 9 countries, the concert by on Sunday, November 5th, by the Saint Louis Chamber Chorus (SLCC) focused on music from a single country, Mexico. The venue was Saint Cecilia Catholic Church, which has a notable Hispanic presence currently in its congregation, in the Carondelet neighborhood. Mexican music thus made for an appropriate program theme here, especially given that in classical music programming, Mexican works tend to get short shrift, as seems pretty much the case with much non-European concert hall music. SLCC artistic director Philip Barnes noted this situation as much in his introductory audience welcome, with general comments as to how much of a new experience this music would be for all parties involved, the musicians and the audience. The concert featured 8 composers and 10 works in total, with the one female composer in the group also the only living composer, and only two of the composers’ names familiar at least to me. The SLCC had performed music by only one of the featured composers before, so that the rest of the program consisted of music totally new to the SLCC. There was further symbolism in the choice of venue, as Saint Cecilia is the patron saint of music, and Saint Cecilia’s Day is November 22.
The concert began with a selection by the one composer previously performed by the SLCC, Juan Gutierrez de Padilla (~1590-1664), his “Deus In Adjutorium Intende” (“O God, reach forth to aid”), a very extrovert and outgoing work, set to a Latin text. The next selection “went native”, linguistically at least, for the “Dios Itlazonantiziné” (“O loving little mother of God”) by Hernando Franco (1532-1585), a hymn to the Virgin Mary set to a Nahautl (native Aztec language) text. This was itself a work in quite bright spirit, and featured a well-done soprano solo from Madelyn Munsell. Given these composers’ birth years, it’s no surprise to learn that both were born in Spain, and thus were emigrants to Mexico, essentially as part of the conquistador ‘wave’ from Spain.
The third composer on the program was the first relatively familiar name, Carlos Chavez (1899-1978), the first native Mexican composer of the concert, his “Three Nocturnes” from 1942. Ironically, the poems set in this work are English, John Keats’ “Sonnet: To Sleep”, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To the Moon”, and Lord Byron’s “So, we’ll go no more a-roving”. On this first-ever listen, the music is certainly competent, if rather anonymous stylistically to my ear, with nothing “Mexican” about it. By a historical “great minds think alike” coincidence, the Keats sonnet is the same sonnet that Benjamin Britten set as part of his “Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings” from 1943.
The fourth selection returned to the 16th century, but for a work by a native Mexican composer, “Sancta Maria, E!” (“Oh, Holy Mary!”) by Francisco Hernández (1517-1587), another Mariany hymn set in Nahuatl. The first half of the concert closed with a setting in Latin of the “Magnificat”, for two choirs, by a native Mexican composer from the next century, Francisco Lopez Capillas (~1615-1673). Prior to the music, Mr. Barnes discussed the composer’s wish for a sizeable choir on the order of 45-50 singers for works such as this, as opposed to smaller choirs with more of a “one singer per part” set-up such as VOCES8 (recently at the Cathedral Basilica) or Chanticleer (scheduled for later this season there), so as to fill the senses sonically, in a “wall of sound” manner, just as the church setting would fill the senses visually, especially if the church has much in the way of dazzling mosaics and tile, as St. Cecilia Church does. However, the work was not a continuous or relentless “pedal to the metal” “wall of sound”, but had moments of relative quiet for effective contrast.
The second half of the concert began with another selection by Juan Gutierrez de Padilla, “Circumdederunt Me Dolores Mortis” (“The sorrows of death surrounded me”), with Latin text adapted from Psalm 116. The pace of this work was slower than the opening work by the same composer, and made for a good contrast. The next work was another Carlos Chavez selection, “Nonantsin” (“Mother”) from 1972, a Nahuatl setting of a child’s lament to his/her mother. Certainly compared to the 16th and 17th century works, Chavez used a much more chromatic and harder-edged language, though never “atonal”.
The next selection brought the one contemporary work by the one living composer and the one female composer on the concert. Perhaps ironically, it was also the first Spanish-language work of the concert. This was “Marinas”, by Maria Granillo (born 1962), her settings from 1993-1994 of three sea-themed poems by José Gorostiza (1901-1973), a Mexican civil servant as well as a poet. Soloists in the spotlight for this work were sopranos Christine Guthrie and Kate Leslie, tenor Solomon Wilken, and alto Brynna LePique. Dr. Granillo is on the faculty of the Universidad Autónoma de México in Mexico City, and her writing here is generally in a tonal idiom, if with a bit of an edge, fluid and fluent.
The penultimate selection returned to a more cheerful and upbeat mood, in the baroque style, for “Resuenen los Clarines” (“Let the trumpets sound”), by Manuel de Zumaya (1678-1755), a villancico that de Zumaya composed for the Feast of Saint Cecilia, a clear salute to today’s host venue. Things went from sacred to secular for the final work on the printed program, “Lejos de ti” (“Far from you”) by Manuel Ponce (1882-1948), the other name familiar at least to me from elsewhere. The song is originally for solo voice and either piano or guitar, but the version heard here was an unaccompanied choral arrangement by Chris Rubén Winters, originally for the University of Massachusetts Lowell Chamber Singers. The text, suffused with frustrated romance, interestingly contrasted with the music’s sweetly romantic tone. The unannounced encore reprised the opening Juan Gutierrez de Padilla selection, “Deus In Adjutorium Intende”, perhaps in unintended echo of the opening and closing ‘Aria’ of the “Goldberg Variations” of J. S. Bach.
The SLCC performed with its customary care and commitment, especially notable in that almost the whole program was new to them, as noted earlier. The look and the acoustic of St. Cecilia Church are somewhat reminiscent of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, albeit on a smaller scale in both cases. The attendance was respectable, though not full, with considerably more subscribers than general audience attendees. This may have been due to the very nice weather, direct competition from the St. Louis Symphony at exactly the same time, or the church’s off-the-beaten-path location. The concert ended quite early compared to other SLCC concerts, around 4:35 PM, presumably to accommodate a scheduled afternoon service around 5 PM, and perhaps also to note the return to Standard Time, to end while it was still daylight. Mr. Barnes’ program notes mentioned that much Mexican choral music remains to be unearthed and prepared for publication and performance. We shall see what future music scholarship rescues from those hidden treasures.