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EMG brings Spanish splendor to St. James Cathedral

EMG brings Spanish splendor to St. James Cathedral by Rod Parke

October 13

EMG brings Spanish splendor to St. James Cathedral seldom does the Early Music Guild present less-than-superb performers that I jump whenever they bring a new group to Seattle. That this concert was to be in the glorious acoustic of St. James Cathedral made attending a no-brainer. To say that I was not disappointed would be an understatement. Since the '70s I have cherished an old LP of music by Jusquin des Prez on the Vanguard label that has just the right combination of cathedral acoustic and vocal and instrumental forces to make a sound almost identical to what we heard at St. James. Hearing this sound live was like a dream come true for me.

 Musica Ficta, as we heard them, were a group of eight singers (four of each gender) and about the same number of instrumentalists. (I couldn't see the whole group, as some members were hidden behind the centrally placed altar.) I cannot begin to describe how perfectly blended were their sounds. At the conclusion of one of the pieces, the conductor slowed the tempo to stretch out the closing chords, allowing the singers and instruments to tune even more perfectly to each other, with an emphasis on the lower notes. The effect was breathtaking - a kind of harmonic heaven one wished to live in forever.

 The instruments were a cornetto, alto sackbut, tenor sackbut, and a bajón (a kind of sawed-off bassoon). Using instruments to double, or replace, some vocal lines has not been tried often since the days of my old LP, but Gus Denhard, executive director of the EMG, says there is good evidence that such was the practice in the 16th century. Thankfully, as evidenced here, this practice is coming back into favor.

About two-thirds of the 15 rather short pieces used instruments. The vocalists lacked nothing when performing alone, for their blend was flawless - but I just couldn't get enough of that special sound when the whole group participated.

The music, except for one encore, came exclusively from the 16th century and included composers Cristóbal de Morales, Bartolomé de Escobedo, Francisco Guerrero, Diego Ortiz, Alonso Lobo, and Tomás Luis de Victoria. To a relatively uneducated ear like mine, it all had a strong similarity but was so beguiling that I was never bored. The printed program lasted only an hour without intermission, with two encores adding another ten minutes. Yet I left feeling fully satisfied.

'Hispaniarum Rex Catholicus: Music for His Catholic Majesty,' the program's title, contained music from the zenith of Spain's power and musical composition. Musica Ficta and Ensemble Fontegara from Valencia are making their first tour of the U.S., thanks to the Honorary Consulate of Spain. They have recorded 17 CDs for the Cantus and Enchiriadis labels and have toured Italy, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Norway, Greece, and Japan. One can only hope they return to Seattle.

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