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They're men on a mission

The Chanticleer group is taking sacred songs of early California on the road -- El Camino Real.

May 11, 2008|Chloe Veltman | Special to The Times

SAN FRANCISCO — Most California schoolchildren learn the basic facts about the state's mission history in the fourth grade. Established from 1769 to 1823 by Franciscan monks from Spain to spread the Roman Catholic faith among the area's Native American population, the series of strategic-religious outposts spanned 650 miles of California coastline, from San Diego to Sonoma, providing Spain with a powerful presence on the Pacific frontier. Today, these monuments are among the state's oldest buildings and most popular tourist destinations.

Yet despite the importance of the missions to California's development, relatively little is known about the music that formed the backbone of Franciscan rituals and teaching. "The repertoire that was jotted into the mission choir books still remains largely unknown, even to musical historians," says Craig Russell, an expert on Mexican Baroque music at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. "Similarly, the musical archives in Mexico City Cathedral preserve stacks of gorgeous and erudite sacred music that are largely neglected but worthy of professional attention and performance."

This month, however, many Californians' knowledge of this music is due to expand, courtesy of Chanticleer, the San Francisco-based 12-member male vocal ensemble. Beginning Thursday in San Luis Obispo, the Grammy-winning group is undertaking a tour of eight of the 21 missions on the California coast's legendary Camino Real, including two concerts in San Francisco's Mission Dolores, where it made its inaugural public appearance in 1978.

"This music is part of both our history and California history. It forms the artistic and musical fabric of the West Coast," says Joseph Jennings, who joined Chanticleer as a countertenor in 1983 and became its music director in 1984. "The mission composers were way ahead of their time," says Chanticleer vocalist Eric Alatorre. "While on the East Coast people were writing hymns and part songs, in the Latin parts of the country they were composing full Masses and venturing into Classical terrain."

The roots of the Chanticleer tour were unearthed a few years ago in the vast archive at the Mexico City Cathedral, where musicologists discovered close to 50 lost manuscripts by Manuel de Sumaya, the most famous Mexican composer of the colonial period of New Spain. Sumaya (1680-1756) is credited with, among other groundbreaking achievements, being the first American to compose an opera. The cache of manuscripts, known as the Estrada Collection after cathedral organist and musicologist Jesus Estrada, consisted of a unique collection of Sumaya's villancicos -- folk-tinged church songs of a type popular in the 17th and 18th centuries that were a staple on Catholic feast days in the California missions.

"The find was a godsend," says Russell. "Sumaya is the American Handel. He was responsible for introducing many of the most up-to-date trends of the High Baroque into the New World. Like Handel, he was a spectacular keyboardist and mastered both sacred and secular genres with apparent ease."

In October, Russell brought facsimiles of the Estrada Collection to San Francisco to show to Jennings. The men had previously collaborated on several Mexican Baroque projects, including a Gramophone Award-nominated Mexican Baroque album in 1995, featuring the music of Sumaya and fellow New World composer Ignacio de Jerusalem, and a follow-up recording in 1997 of Jerusalem's Matins for the Virgin of Guadalupe. Together, Jennings and Russell sorted through stacks of music with a view to bringing the sounds of the California missions back to life.

A potent blend of Catholic and Native American traditions distinguishes California mission music from European musical trends of the day. Just as a striking ceiling at Mission Dolores depicting Ohlone Indian basket designs painted in ocher, red, green and white vegetable dyes offsets the florid European-style carved altarpiece, Chanticleer's Camino Real program reflects these dual influences. Parts of the "Missa en sol," a Mass in G minor attributed to Friar Juan Bautista Sancho, sound as if they could have been composed during the Classical period; the work features many of the qualities commonly associated with the music of Haydn and Mozart, such as varied surface rhythms, unstressed cadences and a top-dominated texture. Sumaya's villancicos, on the other hand, sung in Spanish and flavored with folk motifs, are ethnic in feel. The same goes for some of the processional pieces, such as "Para dar luz inmortal," transcribed by the renowned musician Father Narcisco Duran during his time at the Mission San Jose.

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