Tuesday, June 10, 2008


On the Concord Ensemble's Berkeley Festival program last week was a number familiar to me, Juan Arañés’s  Chacona, "A la vida, vidita bona." You might know this piece too, if you're a Hesperion XXI fan (and who isn't?), because it's the first track on the wonderful Villancicos y danzas criollas, which Alex Ross once called "Alia Vox's unofficial dance-party CD."
The Concord Ensemble and Hesperion both perform this piece, the catchiest music ever written, with similar verve and joy. But what a difference in arrangements: the Concord Ensemble performed it a capella. On the Hesperion CD, there's a veritable orchestra, including percussion, viols, a plucked instrument (Baroque guitar?), and sackbutts. 

I've certained wondered about the historical information supporting Hesperion's instrumental forces, but the CD's liner notes are useless on this count. Davitt Maroney's program notes for the amazing Striggio mass performed at the Berkeley Festival indicate that in its time, lavish forces would have backed the singers, rendering his choice of sackbutts, cornetts, and pairs of portative organs and harpsichords conservative. But does the same apply to a secular number in a New World style?


Pablo Corá, The Concord Ensemble said...

Ah, here is the $50,000 question! Would Arañés' chacona be performed a cappella/ or with a consort of instruments.

The score tells us two important things:

1) That there is a written basso continuo line, which means there would have been some sort of instrumental accompaniment

2) That the vocal parts are all written in the same clef, implying multiple voice crossings and perhaps octave doublings, and ostensibly a the peculiarity of having voices perform in any number of groupings and textures, albeit always with the bass

For practical reasons, Concord chose to double the instrumental bass. We were limited in our performance by the makeup of our ensemble, and were lucky enough to invite our friend Tom Zajac to play castanets in the process.

Also, to play off of the textual complexities of the story line, we chose to change the texture by additive process, increasing the number of singers with each verse, until by the end of the piece, we were all enjoying in the festive changes in affect.

Now specific to the instrument question: I think it is safe to assume that any combination of plucked instruments could have been added: theorbo, lute, baroque guitar, harp, keyboards, etc. Certainly also instruments of foundation, like the viol. As to the sackbutts, I would normally not be inclined to include these instruments in this particular piece. However, there is plenty of evidence that supports vocal and instrumental doublings in much of the Spanish literature. Another important aspect to consider in the development of historical dance forms is the crucial addition of percussion, particularly as it refers to African influences in the New World.

I hope this response is helpful and informative. Our main goal in performance is to catch the spirit of the piece and recreate it in ways that are exciting, generally period appropriate. Our choices are delimited by the confines of our ensemble's make-up and artistic talents. I for one, was very glad none of the singers were playing castanets...I assure you the effect would not have been nearly as masterful as Tom Zajac's contribution!

With many thanks.

Pablo Corá, The Concord Ensemble

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you, belatedly, for the fantastic and informative comments!!

It's good to know that Hesperion's choices aren't completely insane. :)

Yes, it was lovely having Tom Zajac's contribution. I look forward to hearing the Concord Ensemble again.