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Review: New Worlds – South America: Academy of Ancient Music and Voces 8.

In the latest concert of their ‘New Worlds’ series (2021-22) at West Road Concert Hall on Wednesday evening, Music Director, Laurence Cummings and the Academy of Ancient Music, with British vocal ensemble Voces 8, took us on a journey to South America.

A gripping atmosphere was established from the outset as some of the performers processed down the auditorium to the stage, following a drummer whose single beat accompanied an ancient hymn to the Virgin Mary, sung in the Quechua language – ‘Hanacpachap cussicuinin’. This anticipated a programme that promised to be out of the ordinary. And so it proved to be.

The simple but evocative drum beat conjured images not only of the vast terrains of central and South America, the new world, but also the more brutal history of military invasion from the old.

The Academy of Ancient Music. (53331175)
The Academy of Ancient Music. (53331175)

Concurrent with the activities of the ‘conquistadores’, however, was an ‘invasion’ of a radically different sort. Catholic missionaries, mainly Jesuits, working from Mission stations (known as ‘reductions’) established programmes of education and building which incorporated the extensive enlightenment of the continent’s indigenous peoples, central to which, as a civilising element, was music.

This brought us to the heart of the evening’s concert: European Baroque work which had inspired the Italian musician, composer and Jesuit missionary Domenico Zipoli, and the contribution his own music had both made to, and been reciprocated by, the social and spiritual place of music in South America.

With their customary élan, AAM and Voces 8 together delivered a range of pieces (many of which rarely heard), by Palestrina, Giovanni Gabrieli, Biagio Marini, Bernardo Pasquini and Alessandro Scarlatti (father of Domenico who wrote all those hundreds of keyboard sonatas).

Zipoli (b.1688), who was taught by Pasquini and A.Scarlatti, assimilated this European culture, but although he was an important enough figure to have been established as organist of the mother church of the Jesuits in Rome, he suddenly left Europe (1717) for South America and settled in Córdoba (Argentina) where less than a decade later he died, being subsequently more or less lost to history.

Deployed throughout the evening’s programme were works by Zipoli, all selected from his most famous work, ‘Missa San Ignacio’ (dedicated to St Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order), and reflecting the ‘proper’ of the Roman Catholic Mass and other services of that faith.

More than such a review as this provides, however, would be needed to describe adequately the flawless vocal power when required (e.g. ‘Confiteor tibi’), melodic joyfulness (‘Laudate Dominum’) or sensitivity (‘Beatus Vir’) provided by Voces 8, and their ‘accompanists’, a combination likely to impress many as one close to perfection.

Voces8 (53331147)
Voces8 (53331147)

Zipoli belonged to the Jesuit Order which replaces a ‘cloistered virtue’ with missionary activity in the world at large. The Jesuits ‘fought’ for their faith, and Zipoli effectively fought with his music. He brought joy, energy, and all the graphic paraphernalia associated with South America to his work, making it at once powerful and accessible as he moved from the Latin to the Latin American traditions.

Importantly, though, his music above all else retained a profound sense of faith and reflected its composer’s deep immersion in Roman Catholic liturgy. A close comparison might be made with the C19th Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins who, throughout his similarly brief span of life, side-lined his verse as something he believed to be incompatible with his primary purpose in life – to work in the world for his faith.

Hopkins had been dead for almost 30 years before almost anyone had read his astonishing poetry. And as with Zipoli and his music it is impossible to separate Hopkins’s missionary endeavours from his work. Like Zipoli, he set aside personal fame and ambition, to use his gift, as he believed it should be exclusively used, God only ‘to aggrandise, God to glorify’, thus fulfilling the Jesuit’s motto Ad majorem Dei gloriam (to the greater glory of God).

There was an embarrassment of riches in this concert, with the variety of vocal work interspersed with musical interludes. There was a brief but engaging organ sequence from Alastair Ross, reminding us of Zipoli’s career as an organist, and two beautiful contributions from the 3 violinists together, one of which, Marini’s Sonata in eco for 3 violins, involved two of the violinists, placed elsewhere in the hall, echoing the passages played by AAM Leader, Bojan Čičić.

The delightful lullaby of José De Cáseda with its lovely refrain so tenderly sung by the ensemble, ‘A la rorro, ro, a la rorro ro’ (Hush, hush, hush) deserves to be better known. And Zipoli’s ‘Beatus Vir’ with its line ‘Desiderium peccatorum peribit’ [‘the desire of the wicked shall perish’] perfectly captured in the four-times repeated ‘peribit’ the fragility of wickedness in the face of moral good – the word itself, like the wickedness it denoted, vanishing gradually away.

What a concert! One left the hall not only with a sense of heightened enjoyment, but also with a sense of having learned many things – and learned them from the very best of artists and teachers.


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