Rare, beautiful music from 17th- and 18th-century South America

Piffaro presents Entre dos Álamos

5 minute read
On a pillared chancel with a golden mural backdrop, 13 musicians and singers, all dressed in black, perform.
The Piffaro ensemble and guest artists perform 'Entre dos Álamos' at Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral. (Photo by Bill DiCecca.)

This year, season closers seem also to be season highlights, and the latest Piffaro concert was certainly no exception. Entre dos Álamos is titled from a work by the great Spanish writer Lope de Vega (1562-1635), a poem whose lyricism set the tone for this beautiful offering, which will be available for streaming May 27 through June 6, 2023.

Piffaro played 24 varied works in seven sets drawn from the rich repertoire in manuscripts of 16th- and 17th-century Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. The concert’s first half focused on works drawn from three rare sources. First was Codex Zuola, Libro de varias curiosidades y Tesoro de Diversas Materias (Book of various curiosities and treasure of various subjects) compiled by the Spanish priest Gregorio Zuola, who died in Cuzco in 1709. The scrapbook of observations also had 17 poems set to music that Zuola may or may not have written.

Music (arranged by former Piffaro member Tom Zajac) was also drawn from the Codex Trujillo, compiled by the Bishop of Trujillo (Peru) in the late 18th century and featuring 20 compositions along with watercolors depicting daily life. And a third source was the Cifras selectas de guitarra (1722), a guitar manuscript discovered in Chile only 20 years ago.

Stunning breadth and beauty

The music of this intricate program was stunning in its breadth and beauty. Some compositions were polyphonic, while others were single-line melodic pieces arranged for varied vocal and instrumental forces that expertly mined and recreated the period’s musical riches. Often, four guitars played along with Piffaro’s usual (or unusual) early music “instrumentarium” of more than 50 pieces. And there were frequent appearances of the vihuela, a 15th-century Spanish string instrument shaped like a guitar but tuned like a lute.

From the concert’s very first piece—the spritely Dime Pedro, por tu vida (Tell me Peter, on your life)—it was clear that artistic director Priscilla Herreid had assembled a remarkable ensemble. Piffaro’s core group (Priscilla Herreid, Grant Herreid, Greg Ingles, and Erik Schmalz) welcomed four gifted vocalists—Nell Snaidas and Estelí Gomez (sopranos), Kirsten Sollek (contralto), Jonatan Alvarado (tenor), and Andrew Padgett (bass-baritone)—as well as instrumentalists Héloïse Degrugillier, Stephanie Corwin, Daniel Swenberg, and Danny Mallon.

All are early music experts whose performances were intricately intertwined. Many works on the first half were narratives, often having to do with love—lost, found, or bittersweet—and these singers were expert musical storytellers. Especially notable were the iridescent soprano Snaidas, charming and witty in Marizápolos (arranged by Grant Herreid), and an incandescent performance by Gomez in Poco a poco, pensamiento (Little by little, my thoughts), a lament accompanied by a trio of plangent guitars. And the Tonada del Chimo (Song of the Chimú), featuring a vibrant Sollek (accompanied by drums, ostinato guitars, and unison voices), is the only surviving piece in Peru’s extinct Mochica language.

Sacred works

Piffaro artistic director Priscilla Herreid programmed the second half as a loosely arranged church service. Sacred music was of enormous importance in the era, with native musicians contributing to the Spanish mass and its music. In fact, Piffaro’s excellent printed program (filled with surprising history and insights) notes that churches often had as many as 60 Spanish and native musicians performing together.

Sacred works in Latin included some familiar texts by Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599): eloquent settings of Beatus vir (Blessed is the man) and Pange lingua (Tell, tongue, the mystery), both with chanted verses (intoned monastic-style by the men) interspersed with four-part singing and instruments. A remarkable Magnificat Sexti Toni, arranged by Priscilla, also alternated plainchant with verses by Christóbal de Belsayaga (c. 1575-after 1616) and Guerrero. Beginning and ending in rich eight-part harmony, this was one of the first pieces of polychoral music written in Latin America. There were also two revelatory works in the Chiquitano language of Bolivia, Yyaî Jesuchristo (Lord Jesus Christ) and Ane Nupaquîma suchetaña (We have a Mother of Sorrows).

When applause is insufficient

The concert ended in high spirits with the intricate Cachua Serranita (from Codex Trujillo), but the concert’s emotional highlight came earlier. Guest artist and Buenos Aires native Alvarado, a specialist in South American music of this period, closed the first half singing the concert’s title work Entre dos álamos verdes (Between two green poplars), a retelling of Lope de Vega’s poem. Two poplars, which would normally entwine, are separated by a jealous river, echoing the story of two lovers. It was arranged by Alvarado, who accompanied himself on the guitar.

He sang this aching lament of separation and longing to a rapt audience with quiet intensity, a lifetime of artistry distilled into this extended tenor solo. It’s a rare artist who can so completely change the mood and transfix listeners, and it was a bold, inspired stroke of programming to afford him the time and space to do just that. The song ends as “nightingales replied in singing,” but Alvarado spoke the final verse, a magical moment that seemed to echo forever. Fervent applause seemed almost too small a tribute for such intimacy and magisterial artistry.

Entre dos Álamos was recorded for streaming (May 27-June 6), so there’s another opportunity to experience this deeply felt lesson in history and musicology presented with Piffaro’s hallmark vibrancy and immediacy. The ensemble wove the sounds of other ages and places into a tapestry that, in our Eurocentric musical world, we often see only partially. These artists reminded us indelibly that great music has been, and still is, created everywhere.

What, When, Where

Entre dos Álamos. Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, with guest artists Nell Snaidas, Esteli Gomez, Kirsten Sollek, Jonatan Alvarado, and Andrew Padgett, and instrumentalists Héloïse Degrugillier, Stephanie Corwin, Daniel Swenberg, and Danny Mallon. May 19, 2023, at Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral; May 20, 2023, at Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill; May 21, 2023, at Christ Church Christiana Hundred, Wilmington; May 23, 2023, at St. Ignatius of Antioch Church, New York City; and available to stream ($19) May 27-June 6, 2023. (215) 235-8469 or piffaro.org.

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