TREASURE - Going for the Gold:
Mexican Baroque Masterpieces
by Victoria Looseleaf
It is, perhaps, no coincidence that Frank Gehry, architect of Walt Disney Concert Hall, with its shimmering stainless steel skin and undulating womb-like interior, after gifting the city of Los Angeles with this magnificent gem, is now designing trinkets for Tiffany. That this evening's concert also overflows with musical bling, specifically rarely heard gems from the Mexican Baroque era, seems equally auspicious. After all, what could be more rewarding than encountering a fabulous piece of music for the first time, except, possibly, hearing it a second. Foray back, then, to a simpler age, one without iPods, cell phones or BlackBerries, but to the 16th and 17 centuries, when Mexico City was a hotbed of musical sophistication. And while European composers had been adhering to fugal rigors, chapel masters in cathedrals throughout Mexico were creating exquisite vocal music of exceptional grace and beauty. Indeed, like the melting pot that is Los Angeles today, many music makers from Spain, Portugal and Italy, who were initially writing liturgical music in the Renaissance tradition had, over several generations, begun traveling to places like Peru, Chile and Mexico, creating a cultural and musical cross-fertilization. Cutting a broad swath from Guatemala to the California missions, this music of “New Spain” once again seduces thrills and soothes.
Opening with a pair of short pieces by Don Hernando Franco (1532–1585) and Juan Perez Bocanegra (1598–1631), both with unnotated percussion, we are plunged into a world both familiar and foreign, the music washing over us like a sonic balm. Spanish-born Franco became chapel master of the landmark Mexico City Cathedral in 1575, while Bocanegra, a Franciscan monk, printer and composer, worked in Peru. Franco’s peripatetic countryman, Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (1590–1664), trekked to Puebla, Mexico, where, as that town's chapel master, he introduced lively counterpoint rhythms into double-choir sacred music, his Exultate justi in Domino a fine example. Also in the Renaissance polyphonic tradition is the vocally pristine Credidi, by Juan de Lienas (1620–1650), while Sol-fa de Pedro, written by Mexican-born Manuel de Zumaya (1678–1756), was composed as part of the punishing examinations used to select Mexico City Cathedral’s chapel master. This eight-minute solfeggio piece – syllables sung to specific notes – is the apotheosis of word painting: Voices cascade until coming together on the word “unite”; quivering eighth-note motifs give an aural twist to the word “warble.” Zumaya not only won the post, but was also the first person in the Western Hemisphere to compose an opera, La Partenope. While chapel master, he fused the Renaissance style with ancient indigenous percussion instruments, helping brand his compositions with exhilarating rhythmic accents. Also taking cues from percussion was Gaspar Fernandes (1570–1629), whose two works, Xicochi xicochi conetzintle (Aztec for “Gently sleep, little one”), and Dame albriçia mano Anton with their rollicking accompaniment, bring to mind the phat drum vamping of Cream’s Ginger Baker. Also a towering figure: Juan de Araujo (1646–1712), one of South America’s greatest composers of his time, was born in Spain but, after making his way overseas, became affiliated with various churches in Peru and Bolivia. Though his output was small, his four-minute Los Coflades de la estleya (Brothers and sisters of the league of the star) with its rousing chorus of the thrice-repeated “gulumbé”, is the quintessence of the era’s exuberant, earthy writing.
The image of the Virgin Mary has inspired artists throughout the ages. One such person was Ignacio de Jerusalem (1710–1769). Born in Lecce, Italy, he earned a formidable reputation as composer and crack fiddler where he was described as a “musical miracle.” After performing in Cadiz, Spain, de Jerusalem was summoned to Mexico City, where he wrote complex choral masterpieces for the Cathedral, rising to the position of chapel master in 1749. Significantly expanding its orchestra in 1759, de Jerusalem served there until his death. Though a contemporary of Zumaya, who hewed to the Renaissance, de Jerusalem’s approach was more disparate, particularly his affection for the galante style. Fashionable from the 1720s to the 1770s, this music, including that of Johann Christian Bach, consciously simplified contrapuntal texture by substituting a leading voice with a more transparent accompaniment, thus helping thrust the Cathedral into the so-called “modern” world. However, with de Jerusalem’s brief Responsorio No. 2 del Senor San Jose, accompanied by the venerable early music ensemble, Musica Angelica (as are all of the works in the program’s second half), the composer's manipulation of the ritornello and contrapuntal lines – seemingly antithetical to his galante endeavors – reveals another facet: Hello, high Baroque; buenas dias, J. C. Bach! Thrilling audiences with lush harmonies, florid figurations and bold vocal writing, the composer’s gifts captivate in his Matins for the Virgin of Guadalupe. A recounting in Latin of the miracle of her appearance in 1591 to Juan Diego, a simple Mexican peasant, the work also invokes the blessings and protection of the Virgin Mary. And while Mexican archives overflow with manuscripts honoring the Virgin, few have more power and sublime beauty than this, composed five years before de Jerusalem’s death. Rich vocalese and instrumental configurations, in addition to the use of appoggiaturas (suspended dissonances), that anticipate Mozart, define this work for the ages. The Matins service, the most ambitious and prestigious category of compositions in the 18th century Spanish New World, comes alive in these excerpts that rival the depth and beauty of a Handel oratorio. Heard tonight are two Responsories, Signum Magnum Apparuit in Caelo and Quae Est Ista Quae Processit, both featuring poignant solos, before the work climaxes with an incandescent setting of the 19-minute Te Deum. Juxtaposing two choirs against a backdrop of crystal-clear trumpets and strings, this life-affirming music remains an undisputed masterpiece.
Also part of this enchanting musical mix was Juan Bautista Sancho (1772–1830), a righteous keyboardist who, in 1804, ventured north to California, where he became one of the most prominent padres in the state. While serving a 28-year career at Mission San Antonio de Padua, Sancho composed the four-minute Gloria, which was sung in missions throughout the state until falling from fashion in the late 1700s. Noteworthy, too, is the fact that the sacred music of California in manuscript form is the most extensive and diverse body of plainsong and polyphonic music to survive from Spain’s colonies, and that Sancho was probably responsible for bringing several de Jerusalem works to the state. It is precisely because of the itinerant nature of these ever-questing composers, with their fusing of Latin, Indian and European cultures, that we can now revel in this orgy of musical gifts that, worthy of a Brinks truck and back with a vengeance, keep on giving.