Our next program, A Mexican Christmas: Angels in the Convent, Dancing in the Streets, is a collaboration between the Newberry Consort and EnsAmble Ad-Hoc, a group that specializes in early music from Italy, Spain and Latin America.
Founded in Bogotá, Columbia, EnsAmble Ad-Hoc is led by Francy Acosta (soprano) and José Luis Posada (lute and Baroque guitar.) Francy and José Luis are the core members of the group, often performing as a duo, and they often invite additional musicians to join.
After performing for several years in Colombia, Francy and José Luis moved to the United States to further their studies in early music, and today they live and teach in the Chicago area.
We recently caught up with Francy and José Luis to ask them more about how they first got interested in early music and what audiences can expect at A Mexican Christmas!
Newberry Consort: What do you enjoy about performing together?
José Luis: We started to perform together when we were in college to make some money. I played the guitar and Francy sung. That was just a perfect combination. It still is.
Francy: I guess I enjoy that it is dynamic. We have different sets of skills and complement each other that way. Also, even if sometimes it is not easy, we can give brutally honest feedback to each other.
Newberry Consort: Can you tell me how you both got interested in early music?
Francy: After college in Bogotá, Colombia, I started voice lessons with a new teacher in town, Armando Fuentes. At that time I was mostly performing music from Colombia. Once we had a concert in a different city, and a friend offered to host us. I was lucky to get the bed in the studio and had the entire night to browse through my friend’s music collection. One specific item captured my attention, and I came back home with a recording with no titles and no composer or performer credits. José Luis and I started to try to find answers; we call that our first research project. It turned out to be Sephardic music sung by Joaquín Díaz. We put together our first concert with those songs and some Spanish Renaissance pieces.
Newberry Consort: Why do you enjoy performing early music?
José Luis: I feel there is a strong connection between the traditional music that I am attached to and early music. There are several things in common that I enjoy, but if I had to mention just one, I would go for the room for creativity. In both of those worlds, improvisation is an important ingredient; you never play the same piece the same way twice. Another thing is for some reason both worlds came together for me in a very organic way. There was a time when I was performing early music and traditional music with different groups. Most people were puzzled because those seemed to be antagonist worlds. I, instead, felt they complemented each other and fit my style of playing and my way of feeling and recreating music.
Francy: I enjoy the fact that there is both a certain freedom and at the same time lots of opportunity for attention to detail.
Newberry Consort: You are both originally from Colombia. What brought you both to the United States?
Francy: I came first to the University of New Hampshire where I studied with Kathleen Wilson, a teacher I met in Colombia. Two years later, José Luis joined and we both went to Case Western Reserve University to pursue graduate studies in early music. I studied with Ellen Hargis; José Luis did Baroque guitar and lute with Scott Pauley. We both took several performance practice classes with Dr. Ross Duffin. We also participated in master classes and workshops with a good number of artists who came to perform in the early music concert series: Benjamin Bagby, Suzie LeBlanc, Andrew Lawrence-King, Michael Chance, and Paul O’Dette, to name a few.
Newberry Consort: Can you tell us about some of the different instruments that you’ll be playing in the Mexican Christmas concert?
Francy and José Luis: We have violins, harp, Baroque guitars and other string instruments descendent from the Spanish guitar that are nowadays played in Mexican traditional music, such as jarana and leona. The jarana will give us harmonic and rhythmic support with some nice strumming patterns; the leona will give some depth with bass lines. Among the percussion instruments we will have a variety of hand drums, as well as castanets and tambourine. Some other percussion includes instruments played in traditional Mexican music, such as the jawbone.
Newberry Consort: Can you tell us about some of the music that you’ll be performing in the concert?
Francy and José Luis: We will be performing villancicos. Nowadays, the word “villancico” is used in many Latin American countries including Mexico and Colombia, in connection to music for the Christmastide. However, it was not always that way. The word “villancico” was used in Renaissance Spain to identify a literary genre; later on, in the Cancioneros Musicales (Musical Collections) of the Reinassance and early Baroque, the word referred to a musical genre.
Iberian composers who traveled to the New World brought with them the genre of villancico and an important number of such pieces, mostly with sacred theme, were composed on this side of the Atlantic.
The villancicos we will be performing in this program are pieces for the Christmas season. One place that was particularly appreciated for its religious music in colonial times was the Cathedral de Puebla de los Ángeles, in the state of Puebla, Mexico, which in turn, is well represented in our program. We have composers who were born there, such as Antonio de Salazar and Juan García de Zéspedes, and also who succeeded each other as chapel masters in the Puebla Cathedral: Gaspar Fernández, Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla and again, García de Zéspedes. Gaspar Fernández was there in the early 17th century. His music is preserved in the Cathedral of Oaxaca, but it is known he composed it in Puebla.
By Fernández we have two pieces that call attention for the use of creole (criollo) language. In one case (“Eso rigor e repente,” which literally translates to “This, I suddenly say”) there is a combination of Spanish and Guineo (a word used in many contexts in connection with Africa, its people and/or their language). Another piece has what can be recognized as words in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec people, also mixed in with some Spanish.
We have three pieces by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, one of the most important composers of the colonial times in New Spain. One of those pieces, Al establo más dichoso (“To the happiest stable/manger”), is an ensaladilla. It has many contrasting sections that present different characters, from shepherds, to African people and angels that come to visit Jesus in the manger. Mixed in with these and other villancicos we will have some instrumental pieces from the guitar books by Santiago de Murcia, which have survived in Latin American archives.
Newberry Consort: Why are you excited to perform this concert with the Newberry Consort?
Francy: We grew up playing/singing traditional music, and then went to school for music. The repertoire of villancicos really brings us “home,” so to speak, in many ways. And then, getting to do this repertoire with the Newberry Consort, a Chicago institution, is the icing on the cake. We met Ellen and David long ago in some early music festivals, then I studied voice with Ellen at Case Western. She coached José Luis and me for our recitals. Now we share the stage. That is a tremendous honor for us.