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Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2008

A Mexican Christmas

Classical Review

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Last Saturday evening Early Music Now returned to a seldom used performance venue, the St. Joseph Center Chapel on Layton Boulevard. A majority of Milwaukeeans have no idea of the existence of this ornate chapel, consecrated in 1917 and adorned with Austrian stained glass and mosaics. In a city of noteworthy church and chapel designs, this distinguished space stands out.

Considering the demographics of the nearby South Side neighborhood, the Rose Ensemble's program, "Celebremos el Niño" ("A Mexican Baroque Christmas") seemed especially appropriate. I had never before encountered this repertory, and I couldn't have been alone. Some of the music was European in style, primarily composed by Spanish born immigrants to Mexico, such as Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (c. 1590-1664) and Antonio de Salazar (c. 1650-1715). Other selections were infused with Mexican and Caribbean dance rhythms. The program stirred provocative thoughts about what must have been highly developed arts at the Puebla Cathedral, completed in 1649 and a center for Mexican culture. There was certainly no comparable cathedral or sophisticated music culture in the American or Canadian colonies in that era.

With 10 singers and three players the Rose Ensemble of St. Paul has a refined, pure, technically polished sound. The individual voices have been insightfully cast, the timbres coming together in an easy and natural blend. The tone, balance, diction and pitch were clear and a delight at all times. The succession of pieces was artful, with variety of mood and style. The voices combined in various configurations along the way; all members of the group were able soloists. Light instrumental accompaniment was added for some numbers. The instruments included viola da gamba, violin, harp, percussion and the vihuela de mano, an ancestor to the modern guitar.

As an encore the group departed from the theme and performed a lusty, powerful rendition of an early American Christmas hymn. While it was a completely different genre and style, the encore had an unintended effect. It showed that the principal program preceding it, though beautiful in every way, did not hit the same red-blooded, primary colors of expression.
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