The Newberry Consort is completing its season this weekend by returning to the Newberry Library’s collection of choir books from the Convent of Our Lady of the Incarnation in Mexico City for a program of vespers music by Mexican Baroque composer Juan de Lienas. To say he is little-known is an understatement. Beyond the Newberry choirbooks, his music is found in only one other Mexican source, and no facts have emerged about his life. Apart from the music — an impressive collection of antiphons, motets and psalm settings for two or more choirs — all we have are some nasty epithets and a caricatured portrait drawing.
But as an ensemble of 10 female voices and four instruments strikingly demonstrated Friday night at St. Clement Catholic Church, the shimmering, occasionally soaring music was enough, especially when so thoughtfully assembled and presented in a visually and acoustically satisfying setting. Research indicated that women alone performed music at the convent, singing the low parts, transposing them higher or playing them on a viola da gamba or bassoon. On Friday the ensemble did all three, and director Ellen Hargis chose pieces of such diverse character as to provide a fabric alternately pale and colorful, lively and serene. Frances Conover Fitch played short solo organ pieces — by Jose Ximenez, Francisco Correa de Arauxa and anonymous composers — on both halves of the concert. Hargis dedicated the first part, including five antiphons, to St. Clement, the church’s patron saint. Thereafter came music honoring the Virgin Mary and, finally, drawn from Compline, the last service the community sang before going to bed.
Lienas’ “Magnificat” a 10 was the richest, most extended essay. Here Hargis ran into difficulty, having only music for eight of the voices. She completed the piece by drawing on earlier works and composing in the style of Lienas. Her effort was radiant and moving, sung with the purest tone as well as with an ardor properly scaled to music of the period. Its premiere gave both aesthetic and scholarly pleasure. The concluding hymn “Te lucis ante terminum” and “Salve Regina,” also Hargis’ restorations, conveyed a sweet tranquillity itself nearly worth the price of admission.