Early Musical Surprises from the New World
A preview by Marc Shulgold
Evanne Browne chuckled when faced with an unexpected challenge: Pronounce the name of a choral piece to be sung by her choral ensemble Seicento later this month.
It’s titled Teponazcuicatl.
“I’ve been practicing it,” the conductor said with a laugh. She had no problem translating the title of this charming piece, which dates back to Mexico of the 16th Century. It’s “A Procession of the Drum,” a tune that had been performed the day after Christmas in 1531. It will be sung in Náhuatl, the ancient Aztec language.
Faced with the task of learning to sing music in an unfamiliar language, Browne and company happily embraced this and other challenges, as they prepared their intriguing program of vocal and instrumental rarities from the Colonial Period in the New World.
“Luckily, we discovered pronunciation guides on the internet,” said Browne, artistic director of Seicento (Say-ee-CHEN-to, speaking of pronunciations). In addition to the Aztec pieces, the group will also be singing in Spanish, Latin, Portuguese and maybe some African phrases tossed in.
Naturally, the language issue required some concentrated work in rehearsals. One member of Seicento was familiar with Portuguese, so that helped. But Browne added that there were other hurdles in learning these ancient pieces. “For a modern musician, the rhythms are tricky. Nailing down the placement of beats and accents was quite a challenge,” she said. “I told the singers right from the start not to worry – bar lines (delineating down beats in a score) simply didn’t exist back then.”
Sounds like some hard stuff to master. So why tackle it? “This is one of the last areas we haven’t explored,” the conductor replied. She was introduced to the villancicos, negritos and other works from Colonial Latin America by Mark Filbert, cantor and organist at St. Paul Lutheran Church, where the first weekend program will be presented. “He told me he’d heard this music and said, ‘You should listen to this’,” Browne recalled.
YouTube proved a nice audio source, but where to find the scores? “I’m a researcher,” she said proudly. “I had a wonderful time digging around in the Library of Congress. Most of this music wasn’t discovered until the early 20th Century.” Christopher Moroney of the San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble had already done major work in arranging the music for performance.
Surprises await at Seicento’s three concerts, Browne promised, noting that “so much of this music is toe-tapping.” To inject an appropriate rhythmic bounce to the program, she’s brought in two percussionists, Brett Bowen and Eric Harbeson, in addition to some string players and a harpsichordist. Bowen and Harbeson will play an unusual assortment of instruments, such as a hollowed-out log, a conch shell, deer antlers and “singing” rocks that actually sing.
Another unexpected treat will be the presence of selections celebrating the Nativity. “There are a lot of songs from that time about a manger birth, in which they add their own experiences and culture to the story.” The gifts to the infant are adapted to include locally available items, she said, and the text will say things like, “Play your guitar!”
A New World Christmas in October? “Yes indeed,” Browne replied. “It’s real early. We’ll be beating Macy’s!”
Seicento will perform Colonial Latin America and the New World at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21 in St. Paul Lutheran Church, 1600 Grant St.;
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22 in First United Methodist Church, 1421 Spruce St., Boulder;
and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23 in the Stewart Auditorium, Longmont Museum, 400 Quail Rd., Longmont. Information: seicentobaroque.org.