Last night San Francisco Renaissance Voices (SFRV) concluded its fifteenth anniversary season with a performance at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, where the a cappella choir serves as Artists-in-Residence. The title of the program was The Music of Renaissance Portugal & the New World, and the vocalists were led by guest conductor Sven Edward Olbash. The choral selections were separated by instrumental music played by guitarist Giacomo Fiore.
The major work on the program was the Missa Philippina, composed by Manuel Cardoso to honor the Portuguese King Philip IV. Cardoso was also represented on the program by the motet “Gloria laus” (glory and praise). Another motet, “Crux fidelis” (noble tree), was composed by another Portuguese king, Juan IV. The other Portuguese composers on the program were Pedro de Escobar and Pedro de Cristo. The program also included a lullaby by Gaspar Fernandes, a composer who was born in Portugal but settled in Guatemala. The villancico “Xicochi” (sleep) was based on the Nahua culture he encountered in the New World; and the text is in Nahuatl (Aztec). The program also included a song by the Mexican nun Juana Inés de la Cruz, usually known as Sor Juana, as well as an Alleluia by Mexican composer Francisco López Capillas.
Hacienda Panoaya, formerly where Sor Juana lived in Amecameca, Mexico (photography by Adamcastforth, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)
Fiore opened the program with a selection from the third of the six published volumes of vihuela music composed by Luis de Narváez. This was a transcription of the chanson “Mille Regretz” (a thousand regrets) by Josquin des Pres. Narváez composed a set of variations to which he assigned the subtitle “La canción del Emperador” (the song of the emperor). Fiore’s other selections were by anonymous sources. One of those, “Maricapalos,” was subsequently transcribed for guitar by Gaspar Sanz, published in the second volume of his instructional material with the title “Marizápalos,” from which it would then be appropriated by Joaquín Rodrigo as the primary theme for the second movement of his “Fantasía para un gentilhombre” (fantasia for a gentleman).
The reduced resources of SFRV brought a transparency to all of the vocal selections. Cardoso’s Mass arrangement involved an “encoded” nod to his royal patron. Within the rich web of polyphonic settings of the sacred text, Cardoso frequently inserted the phrase “Philipus quartus.” Those familiar with the Mass text probably noticed that the familiar words were not always as familiar as usual. Cardoso’s insertions were dutifully subtle, but the ear gradually learned how to extract them from their “sacred context.”
For the most part, the words of all the selections were clear. The attentive listener could pick them out of even the richest polyphony without too much difficulty. (This may have been due in no small part to the clarity of the bass line sung by Nick Volkert, but it is generally agreed among attentive listeners that the bass is where you are least likely to lose your way!)
Nevertheless, there seemed to be several problems of intonation and balance. Thus, one could not always get a clear sense of how each line contributed to the whole; and the superposed intervals were not always as rich in natural overtones as they could have been. Still, this was clearly a sincere account of music that was frequently rich in its embellishing figures. Whatever the shortcomings may have been, SFRV came through with a stimulating journey of sources that are, for the most part, unfamiliar to most listeners.