The Newberry Consort is a vocal and instrumental ensemble devoted to historically informed performances of early music. They are in residence at the Newberry Library in Chicago, an extraordinary institution founded in 1887 and remaining one of the few surviving independent research libraries in the United States that is fully open to the public. In the early 1980s the Newberry took the first steps to take advantage of their collection of musical scores by starting a concert series modeled to some degree on the Folger Library’s series in Washington, D. C. By 1985 the concerts morphed into the Newberry Consort, a superb ensemble that has toured internationally, made many recordings, and been widely lauded.
Ellen Hargis is one of two co-directors of the ensemble (the other is David Douglass). Both have announced that they will retire at the end of the 2021–22 season. Here Hargis has assembled works that could have comprised a 1650 Vespers service in the Convent of Our Lady of the Incarnation in Mexico City. The choirbooks from the convent are housed at the Newberry Library. The majority of the music is by Juan de Lienas (1617–1654), a musician active in Mexico and Cuba in the 17th century. The few other composers represented with brief pieces include Fray Jasinto, Francisco Correa de Arauxa, and the extremely prolific Anonymous.
In addition to high quality of performances, another consistent feature of Newberry Consort projects is adroit programming. This disc alternates a cappella vocal music with pieces accompanied by instruments of the period, and one organ solo (Tiento del cuarto tono by Francisco Correa de Arauxa) brilliantly played by Frances Fitch. The instruments being played include baroque guitar, bajón (a bassoon-like instrument), and viola da gamba. The sequencing of the pieces exhibits variety of textures and musical grammar to maintain the listener’s attention and interest throughout.
The music of Lienas, which was a new discovery for me, is strikingly beautiful. It is not the easiest to perform and requires precise intonation, which it receives here. The nuns at the convent in Mexico must have been well trained. The Newberry Consort inserts settings from the Liber usualis between some of the Lienas pieces, further adding to the varied pacing.
This is an important document because it broadens our knowledge of 17th-century church music in Mexico, and it does so with superb performances and spacious recorded sound appropriate for an ecclesiastical setting. Although the booklet includes excellent notes by Hargis, it does not provide the texts, which are available on Navona’s website.