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The Dawning of an Old Music Order

Chanticleer's 'Matins for the Virgin of Guadalupe' is by an 18th century composer and reflects California culture and missions.

April 26, 1998|Josef Woodard | Josef Woodard is an occasional contributor to Calendar

The San Francisco-based vocal group Chanticleer has made a name for itself from its polished musical gifts and its dedication to wide-ranging programming. With its current tour, which brings the 12-man ensemble to several venues in Southern California this week, Chanticleer digs a little deeper in the exotic--and finds it in our own backyard.

The group's ambitious performance schedule comes on the heels of its new recording, "Matins for the Virgin of Guadalupe" by 18th century composer Ignacio de Jerusalem, on the Teldec label. It's a sequel of sorts to their 1994 album "Mexican Baroque."

This strain of Chanticleer's musical life crystallizes a larger "roots" movement, as scholars unearth more of California's past. Suddenly, music made hundreds of years ago in Mexico City and the California Missions is shedding light on cultural life in the New World, before Manifest Destiny secured this landscape as part of the United States.

Joined by an orchestra of period instruments, Chanticleer will be performing the work of Jerusalem (1708-1769) and Manuel de Zumaya (1678-1755) at UCLA's Royce Hall on Saturday, and at the San Gabriel Mission, as part of the Chamber Music in Historic Sites series, next Sunday. They'll also perform this week or next at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, UC Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara Mission, the California Center for the Arts in Escondido, and the Irvine Barclay Theatre, before heading to Arizona, Texas and, finally, Mexico. That last leg will represent an oblique homecoming, presenting music barely known on its native soil.

Beyond the music itself, the new/old music movement has inherent socio-historical interests, and one of the most passionate scholars in the field is Craig Russell, based at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. It was Russell who approached Chanticleer in 1992 about singing Mexican Baroque music, after assembling music discovered by a colleague, John Koegel, in a vault at the San Fernando Mission.

The ensemble performed some of that music first at a conference at the university. Soon thereafter they recorded "Mexican Baroque," which includes a poly-choral Mass in D, assembled by Russell and attributed to Jerusalem, who was in charge of music at the Mexico City Cathedral in the mid-1700s, and whose compositions were ultimately dispersed throughout the California mission system.

Chanticleer isn't alone in reviving lost Mexican Mission treasures. In 1976, an L.A.-based vocal group led by Ventura composer John Biggs released a tape that Russell calls "a pioneering recording of mission music. [It] was really good, and out there before--I say this facetiously--anybody cared."

Russell also points to the work of Juan Pedro Gaffney, founder/aristic director of Coro Hispanico de San Francisco who has been presenting this music for 20 years. Last fall, the Los Angeles-based vocal group Zephyr released its second recording, a compilation of rediscovered Mission music, followed by performances in local missions.

"A wonderful result of all this interest is that we end up learning a lot about ourselves," Russell said from his home in San Luis Obispo, another mission town. "This isn't music from some remote and distant place, this is music that would have been performed at the missions that we all drive by every day. To me, that's exciting. It's somewhat akin to discovering facts about your great-grandfather. It's something that belongs in our blood, so to speak."

Listening to Chanticleer's new album, one hears a strong and binding link to European music of the day--the Matins (which is Latin for "morning" and a form of liturgical music designated for morning prayers) dates from 1764--but with some subtle twists. Jerusalem was an Italian emigre who first came to the cosmopolitan outpost of Mexico City as a violinist, but who wound up composing sacred music and serving as chapel master for 20 years in the cathedral.

"It sounds European," agrees Joseph Jennings, the musical director of Chanticleer, "yet you hear it and think, 'No, this is not Haydn or Vivaldi or Pergolesi.' There's something more earthy about this music. I suppose that's indicative of the people and the situations surrounding where the music was written. I hear something [in it] that sounds like real church music; there's something more vernacular about it."

One vernacular element is its reference to Our Lady of Gaudalupe--the Mexican Madonna who, according to the Catholic Church, appeared to the Indian Juan Diego in 1531. It's the New World's only church-sanctioned Virgin sighting.

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