Last night’s Faculty Artist Series recital in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) was given by Richard Savino, a member of the Guitar Department and responsible for plucked strings in the Historical Performance Department. For the occasion he brought along his El Mundo chamber group, whose repertoire focuses on music in Italy, Spain, and Latin America between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. The title of last night’s program was Kingdoms and Viceroys; Music from the Time of Artemisia and Filipe IV/V. The first two of those nouns referred, respectively, to Europe and Latin America, while the time involved the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. “Artemisia” was the painter Artemisia Gentileschi, while the monarchs were kings of Spain, the first from the Spanish line of the House of Habsburg and the second a French Bourbon.
The selections on the program were taken from the two most recent CDs recorded by El Mundo, What Artemisia Heard and The Kingdoms of Castile. Most likely, this was “social” music, rather than “concert” music. Pieces to be performed when friends would gather, some with their instruments and others bringing their voices. Vocalists might also provide their own instrumental accompaniment. Last night both soprano Nell Snaidas and bass Paul Shipper strummed guitars during the first vocal selection. Shipper also provided both castanet and tambourine accompaniment for the instrumentalists. Most of the instrumental work involved plucked strings of different sizes, from guitar to theorbo, performed primarily by Savino and John Schneidermann, with a few contributions from SFCM alumnus Paul Psarras. However, there was also a continuo provided by harpsichordist Corey Jamason and cellist William Skeen. Violinists Adam LaMotte and Laura Salzedo provided some impressive duo work in most of the instrumental selections, and soprano Jennifer Ellis-Kampani was the remaining vocalist in the group.
Most of the composers on the program were probably unfamiliar to those who did not know the El Mundo CDs. The primary exceptions were Girolamo Frescobaldi, Domenico Scarlatti, and George Frideric Handel. The most unexpected selection was probably Handel’s HWV 140 cantata “Nò se emenderá jamás” (my heart will never stop loving you), composed in Rome in September of 1707. This is one of his few settings of a Spanish text and his only composition that explicitly calls for guitar. The Scarlatti selection was also unique in that it was not one of his keyboard compositions. It was the opening selection, entitled, appropriately enough, “Symphonia para empezar” (sinfonia to begin); and it involved all instrumentalists. Scarlatti’s influence was also evident in an Allegro movement (added to the program) by Santiago de Murcia, which almost sounded like a transcription of a Scarlatti keyboard sonata.
Most unique was probably Rafael Antonio Castellanos, who was born in Guatemala City around 1725. The text of his “Oygan una xacarilla” (hear the royal girl’s jacara) had verses about the Nativity coupled with a chorus in the coarse (jacara) style of street thugs. This was sung by Snaidas, who used both body language and facial expressions to capture the dramatic irony of the song. In a similar manner Shipper sang another jacara song with a cigarette (unlighted) hanging from his lower lip.
The overall result was a fascinating evening of discovery. Nevertheless, the real treat was simply the fly-on-the-wall view of a gathering of skilled musicians, who had come together for the sheer pleasure of making music. Throughout the evening one could sense the chemistry through which each participant played (or sang) off the contributions of his/her colleagues. This was chamber music taking place in a highly personal chamber.