A Latin American Christmas from Pro Musica

Imagine going to a Christmas concert with no “Jingle Bells,” no “Messiah,” no “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” but coming away feeling uplifted and Christmassy. This year, Seattle Pro Musica chose to give us a gift of Christmas music from South America, half from the 20th century, half from the 16th and 17th centuries when the continent was first coping with large numbers of Europeans.

The concert, Sunday night at Town Hall, was a delight from start to finish. With its customary polish and plenty of energy, Pro Musica sang modern music from Venezuela, Brazil, Equador and Aruba, and baroque music from Peru, Mexico, Bolivia and Guatamala written by settlers from Spain and Portugal. But all of it was unmistakably South American with rhythms incorporated from its indigenous population and imported African heritage as well as from the Iberian peninsula.

The most interesting were the least European-sounding, such as Alberto Grau’s wonderful “Kasar mie la gaji,” (“The earth is tired”) which conductor Karen P. Thomas confessed to being more about the environment than about Christmas, but she felt it fit the program. A song about the desertification of the Sahel, Grau used the Hausa language for the brief text. It’s a hypnotic work with close harmonies tailing downward at the ends of lines, getting gradually more intense, ending with hip smacks and claps, stamps and whispers.

Several songs came from folk traditions, one with a heart-rhythm drum beat, another with drums and rainstick, plus whistled birdsong and even tropical animal cries emanating from individual singers so you felt you were in the rain forest.

There were songs in dance rhythm, like Eduard Toppenberg’s “Balia di Sehu,” rollicking and joyful, the singers clapping and almost dancing in place; also quite a few lullabies, and nativity tales from a different point of view, like Padilla’s “A la xacara xacarilla,” which describes celebrating with a rambunctions Spanish dance form, or Araujo’s  “Los coflades de la estlaya,” about four Brothers of the Star, “humble folk, the blacks of Safara” following the Magi.

Last on the program was Zespedes’ “Convidando esta la noche,” with alternating sections, one quite sedate, the other a wild dance, totally abandoned, with yelps from singers toward the end.

Though all of this exuberance, the Pro Musica singers, including its smaller groups Women’s Schola and Madrigalia as well as the full choir, sang on pitch with rich, clear tone, crisp articulation and spot-on togetherness in often complicated or opposing rhythms; some songs being smooth and gentle, but many more with vigor and verve, all under Thomas’s expert guidance.

Tim Helming was the able percussionist, his job often augmented by choir members, Gus Denhard and Elizabeth Brown played archlute, theorbo and guitars, and Ronnee Fullerton anchored the bass on viola da gamba.

The rest of Pro Musica’s season looks equally promising. It sings English sacred music for cathedrals in March, and Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” in May.


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