Dallas — In some ways, it is more fun not to look at what the Orchestra of New Spain will be doing on the concert before arriving. Of course, that is not possible for a critic, because we have to prepare. But since Artistic Director Grover Wilkins is always reconfiguring his ensemble, few (if any) concerts are alike. Such was the case on Saturday evening when Wilkins presented only the vocal section of his ensemble (he also has an extensive instrumental ensemble of players).
The nine singers were mostly familiar faces to fans of early music. Some of them also sing with other such groups and appear frequently with New Spain. They presented a program of choral music from the Renaissance; all from Valencia, but with a Flemish accent. When Carlos V took up the Spanish crown, he brought his court musicians with him, all Flemish, expecting little form the Spanish court. As it turned out, he was incorrect. Two families were at the core, the Cárceres and the Fletxa, and they were in touch with the rest of European musical thought.
The program featured a work by a representative of both families called an ensalada (salad). This consists of a group of songs that are secular and popular in nature, but which deliver a religious message as well. They can be combined in different configurations and tossed together like a salad (thus the name).
The selections began with La viuda (The Widow) by Mateu Fletxa, an ensalada tossed together for Christmas Eve. That was followed by three chansons by the celebrated composer Josquin des Prés, one of which, El Grillo (The Cricket), is familiar to anyone who ever sang in a high school choir or madrigal group. The first half ended with La Guerre (The War) by Clément Janequin. The second half consisted on one longer ensalada by Bartomeu Càrceres titled La Trulla (The Hubbub).
Most of this music shared a typically Spanish rhythmic pattern of alternating between groups of two and groups of three that is characteristic of such music even today. Think, “I want to be in A-mer-i-ca” from Bernstein’s West Side Story where it is sung by a Puerto Rican woman. The vocal ensemble did an excellent job of bringing this rhythm to life with outstanding contrast between the groupings.
In fact, the vocal ensemble did a fine job of everything all evening. They sang without accompaniment and, to these ears at least, kept the pitch accurate through out the entire concert. Usually, such groups tend to go a little flat without a piano or some other accompaniment to help them stay on pitch. Not so here. In addition, most of the singers got a solo here and there throughout the concert, so we could hear the individual voices. This was welcome because the blend was so good all evening that, even after hearing the voices solo, you would have had trouble picking them out in the ensemble. The blend was admirable.
There were three sopranos: Julianna Emanski, Jendi Tarde and Anna Fredericka Popova (who has consistently impressed in past performances). The alto part was taken by two males (who are also tenors): Tucker Bilodeau and Nicholas Garza (who, like Popova, is warmly remembered from past concerts). Patrick Gnage was the lone tenor and Tim Johnson and Jason Lanb were the bass section.
Wilkins conducted in a subtle manner, keeping his beat within the confines of his body so that it was barely seen by the audience. But he conveyed the tempo and the rhythm in such an accurate manner that the resultant music was absolutely precise, full of bounce and never a dull or ordinary moment.
It is an interesting side point that Wilkins has the women sing without vibrato but lets the men use a minimal vibrato. The vibrato warms the sound and you have to wonder why it is denied to the women voices. This is not always the case. Some recent Baroque concerts have featured soloists that use a minimal vibrato (like the men) while other stick to the straight tone.
There are two divided, and equally insistent, camps on this subject, both of whom have their sources to quote. However, we know that vibrato was around at the time because there is an organ stop called the “vox humana” (human voice) that has a flutter in the sound that tries to imitate vibrato. It is an argument that will never be settled. If only we had a recording.