Dallas — The appropriately named Orchestra of New Spain opened its season on Sept. 15 with some music from Old Spain. Artistic Director Grover Wilkins is one of the world’s leading expert on Baroque-era composers who worked for the Spanish royalty living in Mexico and he regularly performs modern premieres of this treasure trove of music, on historically correct instruments, that he digs up ruminating through their dusty archives.
This concert, however, came from Old Spain. Held in SMU’s Caruth Auditorium, Wilkins presented operatic selections and other vocal works by composers working in Spain from roughly 1770 to 1800. To celebrate the new exhibit at the Meadows Museum, Treasures from the House of Alba: 500 Years of Art and Collecting, Wilkins turned his attention to the music he found in the archives of the Duke of Alba, a well-known patron. More about that later.
The orchestra itself consisted of a small group of strings, two horns, two flutes and with a harpsichord as continuo. All instruments used by the players in the ONS are historically accurate, either actual or reproductions, so the sound is completely different than that of a modern orchestra.
The string instruments use catgut strings, made of a natural fiber found in animal intestines (but not cats), so the sound is much more mellow than todays steel wound strings. The flutes are held transverse, like a modern flute, but are still basically recorders.
The horns are the most problematic. Descended from the hunting horn, it can only play the notes in the overtone series of the key of the horn. To change that, horn players add and remove crooks to play in different keys. Piles of brass circles of tubing sat in front of both players. Without valves, the notes are produced by using the lip only, a very dangerous undertaking.
All of the members of the orchestra did a fine job, even the horns, and all played with excellent intonation and facility. Brad Bennight was a genius at the harpsichord. His part is traditionally improvised from a single bass line and his work was both creative and offered an effectual grounding for the entire orchestra. His solo turn, on a piece by Scarlatti, demonstrated why he is so effective. Bennight’s performance was remarkable, using slight variations of tempo to bring nuance to an instrument that lacks the built in expression of the soon to arrive pianoforte.
Several of the singers are ONS regulars, as well as appearing with other local professional organizations, Baroque or otherwise.
Tenor Nicholas Garza showed us his considerable abilities as an alto. Soprano Anna Frederika Popova’s voice continues to grow and add depth and resonance. Mezzo-soprano Jendi Tarde brings a background in the theater to her performances helps her bring her characterizations to life. Tenor Andrew Dittman gave in impressive performance in his aria, displaying a gorgeous and creamy tenor voice. Rubin Erazo, another tenor, lacks the beauty of Dittman’s instrument, but he joined Tarde in a clever duet drawn from the eternal interplay between young men and women.
The performance would have been improved if the singers had memorized their parts. As it was, all of their facial expressions were often hidden behind music stand, preventing some direct communication with the audience. This was most noticeable in the comic duet between Erazo and Tarde that ended the program, as they were both in costume.
Wilkins does a fine job as conductor although such a position didn’t really exist at the time of these compositions. Usually, it was the composer conducting from the harpsichord or from the concertmaster’s chair. However, Wilkins easily negotiated the many tempo changes and changes of pace so tat the overall ensemble of the performance was spot on.
Now some background:
For this concert, Wilkins turned his attention to the archives of the Duke of Alba as a companion to the display of art works at the Meadows Museum that comes from the palaces of that distinguished family. The Duke of Alba (1756-1796) became Duke upon his marriage to the 13th Duchess of Alba, who was best known as Goya’s “Duchess of Alba” (image on the cover is a detail of "The Duchess of Alba in White," oil on canvas, 1795).
The Duke was a musician himself and an important patron of the arts. There is a painting by Goya of the Duke holding a manuscript of some songs by none other than “Papa” Haydn. He continued a family tradition of musical commissions and adding to the art collection owned by the House of Alba that represents more than 500 years of art history.
Wilkins recovered music manuscripts from this era by searching through the archives of the Liria Palace, which came to the House of Alba in the 19th Century. Unfortunately, the palace was destroyed in the Spanish Civil War but some manuscripts survived. Wilkins found works by José de Torres (1665–1738) and Guillermo Ferrer (1776-1791) for orchestra and soloists and they formed the centerpiece of the concert.
At the Meadows, Treasures from the House of Alba brings, for the first time, paintings and decorative arts drawn from family’s palaces in Madrid, Seville and Salamanca. The display contains masterpieces by Titian, Goya, Rubens, Rembrandt, Ingres, Renoir, as well as others from the 1700’s to the modern era.