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Piffaro’s ‘Spanish Pipers in the New World’BY: Tom Purdom 10.04.2011
Piffaro explored a historical subject— the spread of European music to the Spanish conquests in the New World— without any of the extras the group usually likes to apply to historical themes.
“East Meets West: Spanish Pipers in the New World.” Music of Fernandes, Cabezon, Ortiz and other Spanish Renaissance composers. Piffaro Renaissance Band, Joan Kimball and Bob Wiemken, artistic directors. September 30, 2001 at Episcopal Cathedral, 38th and Chestnut Sts. (215) 235-8469 or www.piffaro.com.
In place of an organ,
Piffaro likes to mount programs that place Renaissance music in its historical context, but the Renaissance band adopted a more conventional approach for its “Spanish Pipers in the New World” concert. The group didn’t partner with costumed historical dancers or arrange the program so it simulated a court festival or a real church service, as it’s done many times in the past.
Instead Piffaro settled for a straight concert format that featured its standard assortment of wind instruments, supplemented by the harp and the small Renaissance guitar normally played by two Piffaro regulars, Christa Patton and Grant Herreid.
The musicians limited themselves to an unembellished concert format, even though the program explored an interesting historical subject: the spread of European music to the Spanish conquests in the New World.
As the program notes pointed out, European polyphonic music appealed to South America’s indigenous peoples. The churches built by the Spanish in their new colonies resounded with the sound of native musicians playing the same music that Spanish musicians played in the cathedrals of Spain.
This was one concert that could have gained from a little more lecturing. Piffaro’s co-director, Bob Wiemken, delivered two brief commentaries during the program, and both of his mini-lectures added to the interest of the music that followed.
At one point, Wiemken noted that the natives didn’t limit themselves to learning how to play the instruments the Spanish introduced. They also learned to make recorders, dulcians, krumhorns and the other wind instruments that Piffaro uses.
According to one contemporary observer, church services were often accompanied by large groups of instrumentalists. Those New World churches couldn’t import organs, so they substituted masses of musicians blowing into individual instruments.
The set that followed Wiemken’s remarks opened with a solemn religious piece in which eight recorders played music that had obviously been written for an organ. The recorders spanned the entire range of the recorder family, and you could visualize an organist’s right hand playing the high, rippling passages of the small high-pitched recorders while his left produced the steady bass coming from a bass recorder that was a foot taller than Piffaro’s tallest musicians.
Find in Bolivia
Later in the program, Wiemken discussed Piffaro’s recent tour to a Bolivian music festival. At one point, the group checked out a treasure trove of 5,000 early music manuscripts that had been discarded in the 1960s and stored in canvas bags.
Piffaro’s spring concert will reverse this program’s theme and focus on the native influence on Spanish music. The set that followed Wiemken’s remarks featured three religious pieces that provided a brief preview of the spring event and the riches that musicians have drawn from sources like those canvas bags.
As you’d expect, two of the pieces added to the evening’s general liveliness, starting with a resounding celebratory fanfare entitled Yyai Jesuchristo. The third was a beautiful lullaby, a Dolce Jesus arranged for voices, recorders and the gentle, seductive sound of the guitar and harp combination.
Piffaro’s musicians provided the voices for this event, but the March concert will feature a guest chorus and narration by a professional actor. Additions like that always increase the overall impact of a Piffaro happening, but the band’s flair for showmanship kept this concert moving along without the extra embellishment.
Piffaro followed the recorder set, for example, with an all-out popular piece— a villano— arranged for an ensemble that included bagpipes and percussion. The Piffaro folks always know when it’s time to take a break from the more refined stuff and let everything rip.
Two new faces
Piffaro’s roster for this season adds two youthful faces to its core of long-term regulars. Priscilla Smith has played with Piffaro off and on since she was a student at Temple; she has rejoined the group after spending two years earning a master’s degree in historical performance at Juilliard. Piffaro’s “Season Guest,” Annette Bauer, is a German native who studied medieval and renaissance music in Switzerland.
The academic credentials sported by the younger musicians exemplify one of the major developments in the early music movement: Training in early music has become more formalized as the movement has progressed. When Piffaro held its first concert 25 years ago, most period instrument musicians were still acquiring their knowledge of historical performance practice without benefit of much formal course work.
Despite the increase in academic influence, the field still seems to attract musicians who like to explore new possibilities. Smith has mostly studied modern and Baroque oboe, according to her bio, but she’s a high-spirited recorder player as well, and she took her turn in the bagpipe consort without any sign that she was straying from her proper specialty.
Bauer’s musical activities include Brazilian percussion music, North Indian classical music played on a stringed instrument called the sarode, and a duo devoted to the art of improvisation.
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