Piffaro revives the music of South America on the Hill

by Michael Caruso
Posted 5/18/23

Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, will explore the music of the cities, missions and cathedrals of 16th- and 17th-century Peru, Bolivia and Chile in concert Saturday, May 20.

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Piffaro revives the music of South America on the Hill


Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, will explore the music of the cities, missions and cathedrals of 16th- and 17th-century Peru, Bolivia and Chile in concert Saturday, May 20, at 7:30 p.m. in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The concert is entitled “Entre dos Alamos” (“Between Two Poplars”).

To enhance the performance, Piffaro has enlisted the involvement of specialists in the field: Argentinian tenor and lutenist Jonatan Alvarado and soprano Nell Snaidas, directors of Gothan Early Music of the Americas. Rounding out the roster of guest musicians will be soprano Esteli Gomez, tenor Jay Carter and bass-baritone Andrew Padgett.

The fanciful title of the program is taken from Juan Blas de Castro’s setting of a lyrical fragment from Lope de Vega’s novel, “Las Fortunas de Diana.” In Vega’s creation, the envious River Tagus tries to separate two lovers who have just awakened by the arrival of the new season. The piece is found in the “Codex Zuola,” which was compiled in the late 17th century by Fray Gregorio de Zuola. He was a Catholic missionary brother who served in missions in what is now Bolivia and Peru.

Peru was the center of the Inca Empire, one of the greatest in history and the largest in expanse in all of the Americas at the time of Christopher Columbus’ arrival. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the Spanish colonies in Latin America were far more sophisticated and advanced culturally than were the French and British colonies to the north. At the time, the Spanish Empire was the largest of all the European powers. It wasn’t until the late 18th and early 19th centuries that Spain’s holdings were surpassed in size and population by the British Empire.

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Mendelssohn Chorus Concert

Dominick DiOrio conducted the Mendelssohn Chorus of Philadelphia in performances of the “Requiem Mass,” Opus 9 (1947) of Maurice Durufle and “Messiahs: False and True” (2014) by native Philadelphian Rex Isenberg Saturday, May 6. The concert took place in the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, 21st and Walnut Streets in Center City Philadelphia, where a virtually full house heard convincing renditions of two powerful pieces of choral music.

Even more so than its chronological predecessor, Gabriel Faure’s “Requiem Mass,” Durufle’s setting of the traditional Latin liturgy of the “Missa pro-Defunctis” (“Mass of the Dead”) of the Roman Catholic Church is almost completely based on the melodies of Gregorian Chant. Its harmonies were not set according to major/minor tonality but, rather, to the strangely and mysteriously evocative modal harmonies that are based upon the Medieval plainsong codified by Pope Gregory the Great in around 600 A.D.

DiOrio led his choristers and organ accompanist Clara Gerdes Bartz is a stunning interpretation of this modern masterpiece. The chorus’ singing was both supple and powerful, and Bartz employed the countless woodwind and string registrations of First Presbyterian’s legendary pipe organ to symphonic effect. The Church’s resonant acoustics, of a piece with its exemplary Gothic Revival architecture, proffered clear yet warm support. It’s a mystery to me why First Presbyterian Church is so rarely employed as a concert venue in a city with so few fine downtown performance sites.

Isenberg’s “Messiahs” is a tad too long for its own good. Among its ten movements are some of the loveliest contemporary choral music I’ve ever heard. Unfortunately, those movements also include more than a few ham-fisted pronouncements better forgotten if not never heard in the first place.

Handel’s ‘Ariodante’

The Curtis Opera Theatre performed George Frideric Handel’s Italian-language opera, “Ariodante,” on May 4-7 in the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater. I caught the May 5 performance and came away more impressed than ever with Handel’s operatic genius and Curtis’ ability to meet many of the challenges of staging Baroque opera.

Those challenges include a “stand-and-sing” approach to theater and orchestration intended for the lighter, clear tones of period instruments. Through clever lighting, stage director Omer Ben Seadia overcame the former and through the use of Tempesta di Mare (Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra) in the pit, conductor David Stern triumphed over the latter.

The challenge that wasn’t met, let alone overcome, was the problem of casting. In Handel’s day, the two leading male roles were sung by castrati. Their vocal timbre was completely different from the adult female sopranos, mezzos and altos in the cast, and thereby proffered a third, varied vocal color along with that of the adult tenors, baritones and basses. 

Using female mezzos “in trousers” blunts that spectrum of tone. The contemporary answer is casting countertenors in the castrati roles. Would that Curtis had done so. Then we would have heard Handel’s operatic genius at its most powerfully seductive.

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