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Fire Burning in Snow:
Baroque Music from Latin America III Music by Juan de Araujo and others. Ex Cathedra Consort; Ex Cathedra Baroque Ensemble; QuintEssential Sackbut & Cornett Ensemble; Jeffrey Skidmore (conductor). The Oratory, Birmingham, 24. 02. 2007 (JQ)


The Birmingham-based Ex Cathedra and their director, Jeffrey Skidmore, have made something of a speciality in recent years of exploring the baroque music of Latin America. This exploration has already led to two highly successful Hyperion CDs. First, in 2003 came New World Symphonies (CDA67380). That was followed in 2005 by Moon, sun and all things (CDA 67524). At this concert they unveiled their third such programme.


There were two differences between this programme and its two predecessors. In the first place, this concert featured the 10-voice Ex Cathedra Consort - which consists of professional singers, five ladies and five men - rather than the full Ex Cathedra choir. Secondly, both of the previous programmes had featured the music of several composers but this latest venture focused almost exclusively on the compositions, sacred and secular, of Juan de Araujo (1648-1712).


Like the other composers whose music Jeffrey Skidmore has unearthed during research trips to Latin America, Araujo was European. As we learned from Skidmore’s lively programme note, Araujo was born in Spain and in his youth his parents took him to live in South America. At one stage he was organist at the cathedral in Lima and in 1680 he took up a similar post at the cathedral in La Plata, Bolivia, a city now known as Sucre. He remained there for the rest of his life.


Though he was a cathedral organist Araujo seems to have written mainly secular music, and Ex Cathedra’s programme nicely combined both sacred and secular pieces. A few of the pieces we heard had featured on the Moon, sun and all things CD, including, prominently, one piece not by Araujo. This is the 1631 ritual processional Hanac pachap cussicuinin. This piece is the earliest known example of Latin American polyphony. It consists of no less than twenty verses and excerpts have been heard on both of the previous CDs. On this occasion, however, Ex Cathedra sang the complete text, dividing it into four equal parts. They began and closed each half with one part, singing it in procession to and from the front of the church. It made a potently atmospheric impression. It is believed that this was the first time that the full twenty verses had been performed together, certainly in the UK.


Each half of the programme included a setting by Araujo of the psalm, Dixit Dominus. These were quite different. The setting we heard in the second half alternated plainsong passages with stretches of polyphony and culminated in a very grand doxology. The setting in the first half contained no chant and offered an exciting fusion of Iberian/Venetian polyphony and snappy Latin American rhythms, the latter emphasised by the judicious employment of a tambourine in the accompaniment.


Throughout the evening there were numerous solo vocal opportunities; indeed, almost all the singers had at least one significant solo. Without exception these were very well taken and the singing was extremely confident, despite the fact that both the music and the words must have been learned specially for the occasion. Unfortunately the individual soloists were not credited in the programme but happily I can single out for special mention, because she was the only female alto in the consort, Lucy Ballard as a singer who made a marked impression on the night. She has a lovely warm mezzo voice, which was heard to particular advantage in one of the very few pieces not by Araujo. This was ¡Salga el torillo hosquillo!, a bull-fighting piece by Diego José de Salazar (c1660-1709). This piece was included on the Moon, sun and all things CD but on this occasion we heard it with different words, dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. In this feminine version the verses are sung by a female alto and Miss Ballard delivered them beautifully. The refrains in this piece were vibrantly sung by the whole consort and the colourful accompaniment particularly featured the bajon and a dynamic contribution from the percussionist.


Other highlights included Araujo’s ¡Fuego de amor!, a piece in which constantly shifting metres were a feature. This short but elaborate piece for soprano solo and vocal consort sounded like a madrigal at times and I admired the exotic vocal textures and the way they were realised. Silencio, also by Araujo, was a short, sensuous lullaby for two choirs, in which the composer resourcefully deployed his vocal forces. ¡A del cielo! was a piece I enjoyed greatly for its exuberance. The music danced infectiously, thanks in no small measure to the rhythmic impetus provided by the bajon and percussion in the accompaniment. Here, as in several other pieces, there were some excellent vocal solos to admire.


The title of the concert was supplied by a line in Araujo’s Dime amor. The concluding words of the final verse read: “fire burning in snow is the effect of love.” The five female members of the consort sang this with continuo accompaniment. This was a captivating piece and these fine singers captured to perfection the mood of plangent yearning. This was one of the very best offerings of the evening. In complete contrast was ¡Ay! ¡Andar!, another piece familiar to those of us who have heard the Moon, sun and all things disc. Here Jeffrey Skidmore and his musicians took us off to the fiesta, delivering this exuberant piece with real bounce and relish. The ambience of the music bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘America’ from West Side Story and this piece made an exciting penultimate item. Perhaps the CD version has even more bite but this live performance really delivered. For me, the real heroine in this item was the lady percussionist, who was kept busy constantly, not only hitting every instrument in sight but also contributing handclaps and heel stamps in true Flamenco style. She fully deserved her separate bow at the end of the number.


Juan de Araujo was clearly a composer of some stature. In some ways I’d have liked to have heard his music mixed in with that of other contemporary composers, On the other hand the works chosen by Jeffrey Skidmore were nicely varied. Most certainly Araujo could not have wished for better advocacy that he received from the superb singers and players assembled in Birmingham. I gather that these performers will be recording most of the works concerned during the summer, presumably for Hyperion, and when they do most of the pieces will be recorded for the very first time.


When the CD appears I will certainly be keen to acquire a copy in order to replicate an outstanding concert. This fascinating and unusual programme, brilliantly executed, was a major success for Jeffrey Skidmore and Ex Cathedra. ¡Eviva!


John Quinn      



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Contributors: Contributors: Marc Bridle, Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling,  Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, John Leeman, Sue Loder,Jean Martin, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas,Alex Verney-Elliott,Raymond J Walker, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)