A thoughtful mix of the sacred and the secular

The Newberry Consort and guest artists perform at Bond Chapel. (Photo courtesy of Eden Sabala)

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

The Newberry Consort, now in its 32nd season, presents historically informed programs of early music, often drawing from the collections at the Newberry Library (after which they are named). It only takes a few concerts to realize that the group beautifully melds two goals: to be scholarly accurate and to be genuinely entertaining.

Such was the case in their most recent outing in Hyde Park. Last month its Christmas concert in Bond Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago was entitled, “A Mexican Christmas: Angels in the Convent, Dancing in the Streets.” It juxtaposed sacred and secular music in a joyful combination. It was inspired by the Consort’s visit to Durango, Mexico five years ago where its performance in a newly renovated cathedral was augmented by traditional music performed throughout the cathedral’s square. “A Mexican Christmas” attempted to recreate the idea of a villancico band, traditional musicians with folk instruments, who might play in front of a church entrance to lead young women into their life as nuns.

The villancico group performed at the front of Bond Chapel and a women’s chorus sang from the choir loft at the back, with the music passing back and forth. To set the stage, the performance opened with a false start, as a young woman performing folk music with the band, realizes it is time for her to be in church, and she runs from the front of the church to join her fellow singers at the back. This lighthearted moment at the very start was to illustrate that both kinds of music were enjoyed and valued at the time by people of various stations.

The husband and wife team who serve as co-directors of the Newberry Consort took part, one each in the separate ensembles. Ellen Hargis lead the women’s chorus and David Douglas was part of the folk ensemble.

The effect was pleasing and the music was solemn, celebratory, funny, and moving in turns. The music was for women’s chorus was taken from six surviving choirbooks of the Convento de Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación in Mexico City now housed at the Newberry Library.

The opening “Christus natus est nobis” by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla included both chant and part-singing and set the stage for the sacred part of the concert. The small women’s chorus sang with commitment and flair. Their plea to God to hear their prayers was convincing in “Himnus in die nativitatis by Juan de Lienas.

The villancico ensemble answered with the upbeat “Tarará, qui yo soy Antón” a song about the birth of Jesus, featuring guitars and other traditional instruments as well as joyful singing. “Alto, zagales” was a many verse song with a jangly street quality that gathered energy as it progressed.

The concert then moved from front to back, back to front, as the church music gave way to street celebrations and then returned to the serious sounds of the church again.

Weaved throughout the program were various parts of Mateo Romero’s “Missa Bone voluntatis.” It featured attractive polyphony and a robust sound from the women’s chorus as well as solid support from the Bond Chapel organ.

It was a splendid concert, but not entirely perfect. There were two defects that marred this excellent performance. First, the placement of the women singers at the back loft was awkward. Not all voices projected equally (one singer had her back to the audience nearly the entire concert), and this was made clear at the very end when the women came down from the loft and sang from the entrance to the chapel. When placed there, all facing the audience, the sound and the blend was so much better than from the loft you couldn’t help but feel a bit cheated by the decision to shoehorn them into that high space.

The other defect was that the villancico band often did not seem to fully gel. All the individual performances were excellent, but the lack of a unified energy made clear that this was a group of top-notch performers who simply hadn’t performed this music together for any long period. They formed a talented band, but they weren’t fully banded together.

Even so, the concert offered a wide variety of holiday music that was meaningful and entertaining. It was delivered with sincerity and skill and gave the listener much to remember and much to admire.

The Newberry Consort returns to Hyde Park this week with a program entitled “What’s Old is New: The Leuven Chansonnier.” It will include newly-discovered 15th century masterpieces in a co-production with Les Délices, co-directed by Debra Nagy, featuring voices, winds, and strings. The concert takes place on Sat., Jan. 12 at 8 p.m. at the Logan Center (915 E. 60th St.). The concert will last about 80 minutes and will be performed without an intermission. A preconcert lecture takes place at 7:30. For more information, visit newberryconsort.org.