A Journey To Christmas Past: Corou De Berra & San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble

Savae - San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble Christmas - Music of Colonial Latin America: La Noche Buena
Savae – San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble Christmas – Music of Colonial Latin America: La Noche Buena
Corou De Berra – Calèna (Buda Records)

Savae – San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble Christmas – Music of Colonial Latin America: La Noche Buena (World Library Publications, 2005)

Although Corou De Berra of the French Alps has been around for 19 years, has amassed 8 CDs of traditional repertory and has appeared at numerous music festivals, I only learned about the choir last summer. Music Director-musician Michel Bianco leads the 6-member choir made up of professional vocalists. Unlike many polyphony choirs, Corou De Berra features mixed voices, both men and women
that have dedicated themselves to researching and performing traditional vocal music of the French Alps and Southern France. But like other polyphony choirs, they do sing in unison and monody as well as, gracing their performances and recordings with rich a cappella polyphony. They perform ancient music that is also a living tradition, meaning even ancient music must adapt to the times in
which we currently reside.

For those who can’t spend Christmas in the historic Provence, Calèna, (means Christmas in the Nice dialect), might just be the ticket. This CD features sacred singing from the “Audoly Manuscript” and songs ranging from the Middle Ages to the baroque era. This CD accompanied a show where the choir
performed songs sung in liturgical Latin with the timbre and ornamentation of singing you would find in the French Alps. Here is a description that came with the CD, “Calèna is inspired among others by a manuscript from the Alps Maritimes’ valleys, which delivered liturgical Latin singing in the rough; it is commonly grouped by the name plain chant baroque.” Although the songs found in the manuscript are plain chant, (monody), Corou De Berra superimposed layers of vocals, often the same melody sung in what I call, layered unison, featuring the whole spectrum of bass to soprano.

There are also some brilliant solos peppered throughout this CD. Some of this solo work can be found on Stabat Mater, a devastating chant remarking on Christ’ crucifixion and also Petit Papa Noel which has solo fragments, gorgeous vocals nonetheless. Lush harmonies can be found throughout, but I especially enjoyed the vocal work on Nouve Dai Ciripicieu with its robust interlude and rat-a-tat
drums that reminds listeners that Nice was once an Italian city. Ave Marie features lush ornamented vocals and the final track features traditional and non-traditional instruments, imagine hurdy-gurdy and saxophone appearing in the same song. Corou De Berra is an inventive choir in which I will be exploring further in the future. Polyphony vocal enthusiasts and Francophones might wish to pick up this unique historical recording. Forget about Christmas present and take a journey to Christmas past.

Speaking of Christmas past, the San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble takes its listeners back to another crucial historical era, this time taking place in the Americas. Hailing from the “New World” or the Americas, SAVAE brings us a multiethnic recording,
Christmas Music of Colonial Latin America, La Noche Buena
(The Good Night). This ambitious project and its 7 musicians explore Christmas music of African slaves, American Indians and their European colonizers. Medieval European vocals appear alongside Aztec, Mayan and African percussion. Songs lyrics reflect various ethnic points of view, but are focused on the Nativity Story. Not to worry though, this recording is not supporting colonialism, but is focusing on a unique musical fusion as well as, some of the earliest holiday music found in the Americas.

This was an unprecedented time in the history of the world–people from two hemispheres of the globe who had no previous contact with one another were suddenly face to face, says Artistic Director and vocalist Christopher Moroney, “Along with all the brutality, prejudice, injustice and horrors that occurred, a remarkably unique and flourishing creative musical culture developed. Some of
this now centuries old music is still so fresh and inventive today that it practically ‘jump off’ the manuscript pages to any musician who looks at it. It’s important not to overlook this part

The songs Moroney is referring to were composed between 1570 and 1680 by newly converted composers as well as, Spanish and Portuguese chapelmasters to celebrate the Nativity Story; originally performed in New World cathedrals. The songs that appear on this recording were transcribed from cathedral archives by Shiela Raney Baird and Robert Stevenson and arranged by Christopher and Covita Moroney. The Moroney’s, a baritone and an alto in the 7-person choir, also perform several Early Music instruments from Europe, Africa and the New World. Not uncommon among small Early Music choirs, all the vocalists in this group, perform double and triple duty. The end result is a gorgeous collection of songs
from a bittersweet period of the New World that features Aztec and African percussion, as well as, organ and soprano recorders of Europe.

It’s difficult to single out a couple of tracks to represent in this review, but the polyphonic Conception of the Virgin Mary (English spelling) and En Un Portalejo Pobre (in the humble manger) are both angelic songs and enough to send shivers up listeners’ spines. Anyone who listens to La Noche Buena is going to wonder why they didn’t have holiday music like this when they were children? The
music here straddles both the academic and spiritual worlds, while never losing sight of a human need to listen to beautiful, heartfelt music.

Compliments of Cranky Crow World Music