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Hallelujahs, All Around

December 9, 2008

The San Francisco Bach Choir came up with an unusual idea for its Sunday afternoon concert in Calvary Presbyterian Church: a program, titled "Aleluya! A Candlelight Christmas," devoted largely to Christmas music created mostly in Spain or Latin America. Director Corey Jamason gathered selections that turned out to be a mixed bag, something akin to the little girl with the curl: excellent and so-so, in about equal measure.
Jamason opened with four selections from the great Spanish Renaissance composer Tomás Luis Victoria, followed by a pair of instrumental works from Alessandro Piccinini and Bartolomé de Selma y Salaverde. We then heard two choral works of Gutierre Fernandez Hidalgo, before two more drab instrumental works, one by Girolamo Kapsberger and another by Salaverde. The first half closed with Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla's large setting of Deus in audiutorium meum intende (O God, make speed to save me), which contained hints of Latin American rhythms. This formed a major success of the afternoon.

The second half opened with a candlelight processional by the choir around the aisles, house lights cut. The processional included anonymous carols, one each from Venezuela and Chile, another from Spaniard Pedro Rimonte, and an unusual Kyrie from Juan Bautista. Then came a formal motet of Antonio de Salazar; two more anonymous Christmas pieces, one each from Mexico and Nicaragua; a guitar piece by Gaspar Sanz; and, finally, three anonymous Christmas pieces from Cuba. Accompaniments, where called for, were furnished by Baroque string instruments: two violins, viola, cello, and bass, plus guitar, theorbo (bass lute), and small organ.

Much of this music originated in the 16th century — that is, the late Renaissance. Hence, many of the purely liturgical compositions opened with an excerpt from Gregorian chant, followed by music that uses that as the motet's fundamental material. High Renaissance music is often gorgeous, though certain listeners may find the complexity wilting. The trick to enjoying it lies in not trying to dissect the parts as they flow along. When that works, the ethereal effect is ravishing.
Eloquent Victoria
That's certainly true of Victoria's compositions, which, apart from their brilliant handling of thematic material, are lovingly passionate. A great many composers have set the basic Christmas poem O magnum mysterium (O great mystery), but none more eloquently than Victoria.

The large Bach Choir was especially superb in achieving perfectly balanced pianissimos that yet glowed as from a distance. That's tremendously difficult. Loud is easier. It's not often that an audience gets to hear so inspired a program as the Bach Choir delivered. But then, this was their typical concert of high idealism.

Most of the instrumental things proved disappointing, even through well-played. Richard Savino was especially fine as guitarist, and more often on the long-necked theorbo. He also delivered the major shock of the program when he played Sanz' solo guitar piece Canarios.

I kept staring at the printed program, thinking there must be some mistake — for what Savino was playing was a familiar hunk of Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. It's no modern arrangement, since Sanz died 1710. It had just never occurred to me that Rodrigo was simply arranging old materials for his concerto. I've never seen mention of it. Fancy that!

Many of the Latin dance songs were filled with hemiola, that 3:2 ratio in which a listener hears three notes on some beats, and only two on others. (It's the kind of rhythmic pattern most familiar from Copland's and Bernstein's Latin imitations, notably in West Side Story.) Yet some of the Mexican and South American works were serious, inevitably in European modes of devotion.

Then too, some of these "Latin American" composers were actually immigrants from Spain. Salazar, for instance, was born in Spain but became Mexico's most famous composer while serving in the cathedrals of Puebla, Mexico City — and, just maybe, Oaxaca. His motet Joseph fili David (Joseph, son of David) employs the old Gregorian chant-fantasy form, but with little hints of native music appearing here and there. It's a beautifully accomplished work of first-class musicianship.

The large audience obviously ate up the entire program, which lasted a languid two hours, and demanded but got no encore. I only hope that the San Francisco Bach Choir will do more such explorations of the Americas, including perhaps some compositions from the colonial U.S. There's a rich treasure of such music to be mined, some of it composed by Native Americans.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.