El Mundo finds its strut with festive seasonal offerings for Music Before 1800

Mon Dec 15, 2014 at 12:56 pm
El Mundo performed Sunday at Corpus Christi Church, presented by Music Before 1800.

El Mundo performed Sunday night at Corpus Christi Church, presented by Music Before 1800.

Unless led by musicians with marquee names—Jennifer Koh, for instance—early-music ensembles tend to have a niche, “underground” feel to them in New York. Music Before 1800, a performance series based at Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan and currently celebrating its fortieth season, is one of a number of organizations that offers a temporary home for itinerant period ensembles.

Around the holiday season, these groups can be a welcome alternative to the pops-concert wave that dominates New York’s musical landscape, as they have rich repertoires of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century sacred and festive music on which to draw. Quality certainly varies, but El Mundo’s concert on Sunday evening rewarded a near-capacity audience at Corpus Christi. The program was not entirely seamless, but at their best the group really made a compelling case for these works, most of them well off the beaten track.

El Mundo casts a wider net than some other specialized early-music groups, performing music of Latin America, Spain, and Italy, from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Beginning the program in the Italian sphere, Toccata by Alessandro Piccinini followed a poised and thoughtful opening statement by Richard Savino, whose playing on the theorbo all evening was consistent and expressive. The Sonata “La Cornara” by Giovanni Legrenzi was played with the gleaming simplicity that El Mundo’s baroque practice allows.

The other Italian selections that made up the first half left something to be desired, with the singers not sounding entirely secure in the repertoire. The strongest of the three, Jennifer Kampani displayed a bright, radiant soprano that easily filled the room in Ecce annuntio vobis. Her vibrato was subtle, almost straight-toned much of the time.

But mezzo-soprano Celine Ricci (listed in the program as a soprano) was not able to find much warmth in spite of her firm, dark tone, and she plainly struggled with the trills in Monteverdi’s Jubilet. Nell Snaidas’s beaming soprano was often marred by uncertain pitch.

Too many of the selections were played with the sort of straight-faced seriousness that unfortunately characterizes many early-music ensembles. Juan Bautista Sancho’s Missa de Los Angeles (written in California, believe it or not) showed little variety of character, though the “Agnus Dei” stood out for its bright, lyrical phrasing. Andrea Falconieri’s Ciaconna struck a more sprightly note, still firmly in the Baroque idiom, but sweet and breathing.

The group seemed entirely more attuned to the music of Spain and its colonies, which dominated the second half of the program. A pair of instrumental works by Santiago de Murcia showed off two sides of their playing: Savino began the Grave with a sensitive, reflective guitar solo, and the Allegro that followed displayed fiery zest from the violinists Adam LaMotte and Maureen Murchie.

Another Italian selection, the Preludio from Corelli’s celebrated “Christmas Concerto,” was stolid, but the next piece proved to be the highlight of the evening. Sebastian Duron’s Al dormir el sol paired Snaidas and Kampani in a tender, lilting lullaby, both sopranos cooing gently. Snaidas’s best work came in the smolderingOygan una xacarilla, singing with ease and color, her voice blooming at the top.

Paul Shipper, something of an early-music utility man, did turns as bass, percussionist, and guitarist, and in the final programmed piece, Juan García de Zéspedes’s Convidando esta la noche, he showed off with a fierce tambourine solo. A single encore in the same vein, Tarara yo soy Anton by Antonio Salazar, brought the concert to an upbeat close.

Music before 1800’s next presentation will be 4 p.m. on January 25, 2015 at Corpus Christi Church. The ensemble Pomerium will perform works by Isaac, Josquin, Senfl, Gombert, and Crecquillon. mb1800.org.

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