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A Five-Century-Old Surprise

New York
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center
11/04/2011 -  
Spain and America: 16th Century
Anonymous: Mariam Matrem Virginem from Libre Vermel de Montserrat
Francisco Guerrero: Trahe me post te
Tomàs Luis de Victoria: Oh magnum Mysterium – Ave Maria – Gaude, Maria virgo
Alfonso el Sabio: Alegria, Alegria (Arranged by Alberto Grau)
Matteo Flecha: ¿Que farem del pobre Joan? – Teresica hermana
Pedro Juan Aldomar: Ha! Pelayo, qué desmeayo!
Garcia de Zéspedes: Convideando está la noche
Gaspar Fernández: A Belén me liego tio
Juan del Encina: Oy comamos y bebamos
Latin America Today: 20th and 21st Centuries
Fernando Moruja: Lux aeterna
Miguel Astor: Confutatis
Roberto Caamano: Salmo 114
Ernani Aguiar: Salmo 150
Alberto Grau: Magnificat-Gloria – Abraham, sicut locutus est
Marlos Nobre: Ago Lona
Osvaldo Lacerda: Ofulú loréré
Gonzalo Grau: Canción de los rápidos remeros & Yemayá from Aqua

Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, Alberto Grau (Founder and Director), Maria Guinand (Conductor and Artistic Director), Ana Maria Raga (Associate Conductor)

Schola Cantorum de Venezuela (© Schola Cantorum de Venezuela)

Gold and silver turquoise, gonizing Crucifixion tapestries, humorous indigenous sculptures and symbolic triptychs radiate in the churches throughout the otherwise dilapidated towns around Cuzco in Peru. Presumably, Venezuela, like Peru, has the same garish, glorious churches. For however else the Spanish mistreated their colonies in the New World, they never stinted on the resplendent churches.

Almost certainly–no, certainly–the choirs of Venezuelan churches date back half a millennium ago. The organs might have been made of local wood, the native people may have carved their own gods next to the Catholic saints. But Spain sent to South America musical artists to train, teach, conduct, compose and run the sacristies.

Thus, it was no surprise last night that the Schola Cantorum of Venezuela, though officially founded in 1967, has the instinctive and historical cojones for bringing such exciting and different music to the White Light Festival.

Equally divided–17 men and 17 women–the group is not exactly balanced in voices, since women stood out in the choral work. But the many soloist showed operatically good voices both in the religious and dramatic works. The changed robes, replaced harpsichord with piano for the second half. But their choices were absolutely unique.

Both halves of the program had the same line, from religious to dramatic to licentious and lively. That would be true of most choirs. But the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela has something very special going for them: their syncretism.

In the first half, Renaissance music written by both Latin American and European composers, gradually worked itself from the usual church songs to secular music which came out like bawdy jokes.

One couldn’t believe Maheo Flecha’s 16th Century mock lament on a poor man whose wife has left him to “drink soup” with another man. Or his equally prurient Sister Teresa, a song that would be banned today. It’s about the dreams of seducing–whoa!!–a nun. (“Get thee to a nunnery,” cried Shakespeare, and he wasn’t speaking about a cloister either. )

Most astonishing was that the Venezuelan rhythms tied with the Renaissance meters and measures, the mandolin accompaniment embracing both.

The song, Let Us Eat and Drink Today has a semi-religious subtext (“We must fast tomorrow”), but the lively rhythms, the dancing choir (more on that later), and the joyous notes from a composer who lived the same time as Columbus, in Spain, could be written in any century, so infectious its rhythms and its repetitions.

M. Guinand (© Courtesy of the Artist)

Founded and partly conducted by Venezuelan composer Augusto Grau, it was conducted also by two women, Maria Guinand and Ana Maria Raga, the latter also playing a few Venezuelan instruments. Their choir was an exuberant one, but always, always disciplined, clear in enunciation (whether Latin, Spanish or, I suppose, an African-Brazilian language), and lively.

The women began swaying in the first religious song, and the sway became a fugue of swaying. After that, it wasn’t a matter of clapping or stamping feet or mimetic hand gestures. These all became a counterpoint of movements, especially in the lengthy final excerpts from the cantata Aqua. The latter, written by Mr. Grau’s son, with its compendium of styles.

This second half had a variety of South American composers, each of whom had bold elements, vivacious interludes (in even the most devout music) and a holistic sense of joy, real joy.

A shame that the soloists weren’t listed, for, like the choir itself, they had more than commanding voices. They moved, acted, mimed and sung with such vivid pictures that one almost didn’t need the translated words. To those of us expecting yet another accomplished choir, the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela was as innovative and jubilant last night as they would have been to their forebears 500 years ago.

Harry Rolnick



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