Dallas — The Orchestra of New Spain’s program of rarely performed Latin American vocal works from the 18th century had plenty of potential. After all, this music is right in Orchestra of New Spain’s quirky-yet-appealing niche. Saturday’s concert, though, in many ways did not meet expectations. Oh, there were some bright spots, to be sure. The three female singers in particular were all delightful, especially soprano Anna Popova, an area regular, who has a consistently full, rich, projecting voice. Some of the individual musicians in the small orchestra also did their jobs effectively: Veronika Vassileva brought animation and leadership to the concertmaster role, while cellist Eric Smith, bassist Gudrun Raschen, and harpsichordist Rene Schmidt excelled in providing a solid continuo.
Unfortunately, other members of the group looked downright lackadaisical—one violinist in particular seemed distinctly unengaged, and in fact in the encores actually played with her legs crossed, an unprecedented sight in a professional orchestra. This visual sloppiness was unfortunately echoed in aural sloppiness, as well—pitch problems in the strings were far too numerous. One issue: the strings generally use almost no vibrato. Period-appropriate vibrato would help with pitch and sound quality.
The musical selections, on the other hand, were interesting and well-chosen. Where else but Orchestra of New Spain can one hear an incomplete Latin song written by an anonymous 18th-century Paraguayan or Bolivian composer? Other songs were composed by 18th-century Guatemalans, Peruvians and Mexicans. The uncovering of forgotten music is this orchestra’s forte.
They particularly excel at staging tonadillas, or Spanish theatrical songs. These songs became popular not only in eighteenth-century Spain, but also in New World Spanish colonies. They are often comic or satirical, and give the Orchestra of New Spain’s guest singers an opportunity to show their acting as well as their singing skills. The tonadilla “Los Cómicos de México” effectively showcased baritone Patrick Gnage, tenor Michael Alonzo, and mezzo soprano Elda Paralto. Paralto has a delicious tone, and Gnage and Alonzo, while not projecting quite as well as their female counterparts (often, I am told, an issue for mid- and low-range voices and instruments in this hall), provided solid voices and appropriate levity in their roles.
If Music Director Grover Wilkins can hire an entire orchestra of musicians who are on par with the group’s best, he will really have something here. The concept is great; if only execution consistently followed suit.