The Sacramento Choral Calendar



Concert Review

Capella Antiqua

The View from Mexico City About 1660 - May 11, 2012

by Dick Frantzreb

“Capella Antiqua is a chamber vocal ensemble specializing in historically informed performances of repertoire written before 1900.  This, our inaugural season, has presented The View from Rome about 1595 and The View from Dresden about 1860.  Tonight is our final performance of the season.  Capella Antiqua is Artist-in-Residence at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.”

That was my introduction to this remarkable experience, which was both an education and a musical delight.  I’ll confess profound ignorance of the music of early Baroque Mexico, but to my ear, the style of most of the music was quite similar to that of its European counterparts of the 16th or 17th century, which is to say that it was complex, engaging, and ultimately ethereal.  Although prominent Mexican composers were represented, it was surprising that the attribution of so many of the pieces was “Anónimo” – anonymous.  Even more interesting was that half of the program consisted of pieces seeing their “first modern performance,” or as the program notes observe, “sung for the first time since the 17th or 18 century.”  This is attributable to the fact that the Artistic Director of Capella Antiqua, Dr. Robert Johnson, is a musicologist of considerable note.  According to his biography in the program, “his researches into Colonial Mexican music have been performed by choirs throughout the United States, and have made their way onto a two-CD set entitled A Choir of Angels.  He is also the chief scribe and editor of all the music presented by Capella Antiqua.”  All this made me sorry to have missed his pre-concert talk.

The beautiful and sonorous Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament was the perfect venue for this feast of polyphony.  Nearly all of the 17 singers were young and highly trained and experienced vocalists.  They gave a professional performance, and I never noticed the intonation wander, nor the blend go out of focus.  The intricate musical lines were expressive.   Through much of the concert, Dr. Johnson stopped directing:  he probably had to because he was also singing the alto part which, like all the parts, was replete with difficult timings and note progressions.  And with so few singers on each voice part, everyone’s concentration had to be intense.   This was necessary because most of this music was contrapuntal and, save for the mass segments, often with extensive, unfamiliar text – in Latin, Spanish and indigenous languages.

At one point, a singer was slow in performing the introit for one piece.  He apologized:  “Sorry, I’m in my own world.”  Of course.  These musicians were busy erecting a musical structure, which they and we were inhabiting in this out-of-body experience.  Along that line, I noticed that the singers rarely looked up from their scores.  Naturally, I thought, “These people are in another world where their combined sound is the only point of reference.  The tempo is the building’s frame, and they are adding not only floors, walls, doors and windows, but cornices and finials.  It requires intense concentration.”

There was considerable variety in this program.  For one thing, there were different musical forms:  masses, motets, nocturns, and  villancicos (popular dance-like songs).  (Click here to view the printed program.) But the presentation itself was varied:  choruses of different compositions of singers, a quartet, a duet, men only, women only, and a double-chorus piece with half the men singing in the chancel, the other half behind us in the balcony.  There was polyphony and antiphony.  And then, there was the depth of the message.  Dr. Johnson provided an 8-page supplement to the program that included the text of each piece, together with a translation.  In all, this was a musical experience that was both culturally substantive and artistically ethereal, and it left me looking forward to Season Two of this impressive ensemble.

All 2012 Reviews