Dallas — At last week’s concert, titled Paris in the 20’s, the Orchestra of New Spain stepped into an entirely new musical space, literally and figuratively. Led by artistic director Grover Wilkins, the program was a bold migration away from his usual penchant for early and Baroque music from the oft forgotten Spanish tradition into a purely vocal landscape shaded with colors of the folksy French countryside.
Wilkins’ programming brought together works of Poulenc, Ravel, and Debussy—settings of chansons and motets that center on themes of love, beauty, work, and contemplation. The overall effect was, indeed, attractive, as Wilkins’ interpretive conducting brought levity and charm to the texts.
Moving away from their usual haunt of Zion Lutheran, Paris in the 20’s was presented in the much more acoustically responsive St. Michael and All Angels Church. The space offered dimension and time to the nuances of the choir’s voices, with a bright, clear ring of reverb that lingered in the rafters. Here, the qualities of their blend were more evident, which was, in some moments, brilliant and balanced, while in others, a bit pushed and unhomogenized. Overall, though, the move to this new space was effective, particularly for this vocally-centered program.
Some of Poulenc’s contributions to the set were, as one might expect, pointed with a cheeky edge that squared with the more wholesome melodrama of the rest of the concert. His Hotel, which was performed as a solo by baritone Patrick Gnage with piano accompaniment from Brian Bentley, is a beautiful piece that strains, both melodically and thematically, over the text of a lazy man in his hotel room, longing for a cigarette. Gnage’s baritone was smooth and expressive here, and his interpretation clever.
Other solo movements were offered by soprano Jendi Tarde and countertenor Nicholas Garza. Tarde’s movement through Ravel’s Three Greek Songs was bright and shimmery, with a lovely lilt that took advantage of the responsive hall. Her “Chanson des cueilleuses de lentisques (Love song to the gatherers)” was particularly heartfelt and moving. Garza chose an apparent favorite of his—Poulenc’s “C,” named for the city of Cé which inspired the composition. It was a rich piece, given care and warmth by Garza’s vocal mixing.
The group also collaborated with three dancers from Dallas Neo-Classical Ballet, who performed interpretively against Debussy’s Trois Chansons (1908), which was set in the middle of the program. The addition of this visual element was an surprising change for ONS, but with all of the other new artistic aims being explored, it made sense. The dancers’ subtle and elegant movements offered weight and dimension, which was a refreshing addition to the thick harmonic texture of Debussy’s work.
Wilkins’ exploration into this new time and region was an unexpected change from the norm. What resulted was a perfectly charming display of versatility and interpretation. While, tonally, the group had moments of uneven texture, the overall product served to evoke images of a simpler time and place, inspired by the very French ideals of “joie de vivre.” How Wilkins managed to present this idea with madrigal-like allusions to the past is certainly the success of this program.