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Mexican Baroque

Chanticleer choir revives an 18th-century church service

By Philip Collins

THE GENERAL neglect afforded Mexican music of the Baroque and classical periods has always seemed spurious--a little too pat considering the abundance of surviving material. Chanticleer's performance of Ignacio de Jerusalem's Matins for Our Lady of Guadalupe at Mission Santa Clara last Friday confirmed that there was music of very high quality created in Mexico during the 18th century. As might be suspected, the country's composers brought different perspectives to bear on the Baroque music we've grown accustomed to from Western Europe.

Matins settings--or morning services--for example, are not common in the standard sacred repertoire, and yet they were the peak of fashion in the Spanish New World during the 17th and 18th centuries. Aspiring Mexican composers cut their teeth on Matins settings; it was the vehicle for showing off one's stuff. In light of the vast resources and varietal techniques that are called into play in Jerusalem's Matins for Our Lady of Guadalupe, it is evident why command of this form brought with it a certain prestige.

Jerusalem's concert-length Matins hosts a wealth of vocal and instrumental configurations, forms and stylistic influences. In the course of the work, one encounters medieval chant, Renaissance modality and some of the late-Baroque harmonic innovations of J.S. Bach--and even a use of appoggia-turas (suspended dissonances) that anticipates Mozart.

Under the nimble and sensitive conducting of Chanticleer's music director, Joseph Jennings, the ensemble's 12 male singers and a 19-piece orchestra of period-style instruments rendered a sensitive performance of Jerusalem's impassioned work. Jennings elicited distinctive shaping from his players, along with rhythmic certainty and purposeful dynamics.

Some of the lengthier chanted episodes seem disproportionate to the score's brief choral/orchestral statements, and as a result, the flow of the work is uneven. However, more often than not, the plain chant sequences provide a sense of stasis that is welcome amid the score's darting changes in form and ensemble.

Jerusalem structured his Matins setting upon a strict triplum (three-part) formula that is so omnipresent in the ordering of pieces that one senses the Holy Trinity is never far away. The work is divided into three large Nocturns--somewhat equivalent to acts--each of which includes three Antiphons with Psalms along with three Lessons and Blessings and three Responses for voice and orchestra.

The editor of the presently used manuscript, Craig H. Russell, who also supplied the program book's informative notes, chose to frame Jerusalem's score with a processional and recessional (as was common in the day) by Manuel de Zumaya, a predecessor of Jerusalem's. The processional, though beautiful, made an underwhelming introduction, if only because the lower voices could barely be heard over the orchestra.

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Reviews of Chanticleer's Mexican Baroque album.

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IT WAS with the work's opening hymn, Quem terra pontus sidera, that the performance took wing. Over a sashaying 6/8 meter, the chorus invited the universe to awaken. It was one of the score's most inspired efforts, and Jennings coaxed its charms with bounce rather than drive over ebbing string sonorities.

The chorus's detailed account of diction and snugly voiced sonorities made the text's imagery especially vivid. Here, and in subsequent movements--excepting the Recessional, which suffered some tuning problems--the choral episodes brought replenishing vigor to the enterprise.

Despite the historic accuracy provided by valveless horns and Baroque trumpets, the fickle behavior of both proved disruptive in many otherwise beautiful movements throughout. The fartlike intrusion of misfired notes and intonational smears, particularly by the horns, compromised countless exquisite moments.

The score's innumerable solo vocal assignments were liberally spread among Chanticleer's members. High points included soprano Corey Mc-Knight's sublime performance of Responsory IV, a moderately paced piece overlaid by darting streams of passagework that the soloist dispatched with a sparrow's panache.

The brief Responsory III, describing a siting of the Lady of Guadalupe, by tenor David Munderloh, was especially beautiful, and one will not forget the poignant and bewitching blend of soloists in the duet of Responsory VI, Elegi et sanctificavi locum istum.

Jerusalem's Matins for Our Lady of Guadalupe concludes with maximum theatrical flare in a radiant setting of Te Deum where a Responsory IX would normally have occurred. The piece displays persuasive theatrical savvy in its building of energy through an ambitious agenda of alternating ensembles and soloists that Jennings meted out with seamless continuity.


Chanticleer performs Matins for Our Lady of Guadalupe Sunday (June 29) at 8pm at Mission San Juan Bautista, Second and Mariposa streets, San Juan Bautista. Tickets $19­$26. (415/392-4400)

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From the June 26-July 2, 1997 issue of Metro.

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