One of the forgotten musical pioneers in the California Mission movement was Padre Narciso Duran, who composed church music for an Indian choir and orchestra that he created and trained in the early 1800s.
Duran's name fails to appear in any of the standard reference works, but some of his ecclesiastical music survives thanks to a suite called "California Mission Music," fashioned from his original manuscripts.
The work will be performed by conductor Alvin Brightbill and the Saddleback Concert Chorale and Orchestra at 4 p.m. on Sunday. Appropriately enough, Duran's music again will be heard in a historic setting--only this time at the new church at Mission San Juan Capistrano.
"Duran lived from 1776 to 1840 and came to California at the age of 30," Brightbill said recently. "He was assigned to the mission in San Jose where he was basically on his own.
"He put together a group of about 30 Indians and taught them the art of singing and playing instruments--strings, flutes, trumpets and drums. And he then composed all the music for them."
Later, Duran was transferred to the mission in Santa Barbara and "built a similar group there from scratch."
It was at the Santa Barbara mission that several of Duran's manuscripts were rediscovered.
The 25-minute suite, "California Mission Music," was culled from the manuscripts by John Biggs, a local composer and arranger, and nephew of famed organist E. Power Biggs. (Biggs also has his own group, the John Biggs consort, which tours with programs of early music.)
Biggs' nine-movement suite includes Duran's settings of various Spanish hymns (including a four-part version of the Lord's Prayer) and portions of different Masses he composed between 1813 and 1822.
Biggs' editorial hand apparently has been light:
"The only thing he has done is to add some suggestions about antiphonal effects, put in metronomic markings and suggested dynamics," Brightbill said.
So audiences will be hearing Duran's music much the way he intended it.
According to the conductor, Duran's musical style is characterized by "a purity of intention and a real tuneful quality similar to Schubert's early Mass in G, which was composed when he was 19."
"It's real simple stuff. Most of the effects are achieved by having antiphonal lines between the men and the women. Then for special effects he will bring everyone together," Brightbill said.
"It deserves performance because of its historical value and its indication of what was going on musically in the missions at that time. But when you consider that Duran had to teach the Indians from scratch, it's really an amazing piece."
Although Brightbill's chorus, at nearly 100 voices, greatly exceeds the number of singers Duran had available to him, Brightbill's orchestra, at eight instruments, is only twice the size of Duran's.
"We don't sing loud," Brightbill said, responding to the question of vocal forces overwhelming the orchestral support.
"We take it nice and easy, and lyrically."
Brightbill is happy to conduct the music in an authentic historical setting. The new church at Mission San Juan Capistrano (31522 Camino Capistrano) has been rebuilt after the original design, "only they've beefed it up by another 50% so it can seat more people," he said.
Inside are copies of original artworks and decoration.
Acoustically, the church is "very reverberant and really alive," he said, and that can create problems in listening to some of the standard works in classical music literature.
Also on the program Sunday will be 16th-Century motets and Ralph Vaughan Williams' Mass in G minor.
"The Vaughan Williams and the chants are perfect for this building," Brightbill said.
Brightbill added the Vaughan Williams' Mass in order to bring the program full circle in terms of style:
"We'll start with Gregorian chants and 16th-Century motets and end with Vaughan Williams' Mass in which he basically took the structure of these 16th-Century forms and wove in his modal 20th-Century harmony," he said.
Vaughan Williams wrote the Mass in 1920 and 1921, the same time that he wrote his Third ("Pastoral") Symphony. The work is for an a cappella chorus--as is all the music on the program with the exception of the Duran--and uses Gregorian chant at the opening of the Gloria and the Credo sections.
"He was inspired by the renaissance of interest in music by William Byrd and Thomas Tallis to produce a large-scale work of similar form and structure and use his own harmonic style and put his imprint on it," Brightbill said.
"He really recaptures the old liturgical atmosphere. It's really a marvelous piece--and it's rough to sing."