If anyone had doubts that Brandon had indeed become a center for the arts, they should have been resolved when Brandon Music made Warren Kimble’s former home and barn studio their North American headquarters. Divine Art (“the spirit of music”), a significant producer of well-received classical recordings had chosen Brandon, when they could have gone just about anywhere, with the result that the town’s name is now being attached to first-class performances by the kinds of musicians that avid collectors seek out.
They have been kind enough to send some of their recent CDs to me, for my listening pleasure and reviewer’s opinion. From time to time I will be relaying to you my responses, there being precious little room in any newspaper for coverage of anything but concerts. To start with, I’d like to recommend “Venice in Mexico,” Miguel Lawrence conducting the Mexican Baroque Orchestra.
Before spinning the CD, I was imagining all kinds of possibilities for Mexican flavored 18th century music. Would native instruments be substituted for the more familiar ones? Would the performances have a particular rhythmic verve, like the Latin jazz that is such a comfort to hear on a chilly Vermont evening? Was there so kind of crossover?
Nothing of the sort, although a couple of instrumental substitutions do give the music a bit of a Mexican tang. In its soul, this music was Baroque pure and simple, with the most unusual twist being the presence of two concerti by Giacomo Facco (1676-1753) in addition to six by better-known Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741).
The Mexican Baroque Orchestra doesn’t need gimmicks. Manuel Zogbi (violin), Daniel Armas (psaltery) and Miguel Lawrence (sopranino recorder as well as conducting), plus five associates, carry the day with the verve and accuracy of their playing. “Venice in Mexico” would be a good Christmas gift for someone who “has everything,” music being something one does not “have,” but which happens, in a way that carries a listener along with it.
Baroque music, played in a dutiful fashion, can seem repetitious beyond endurance. But the MBO approaches each measure as if it were fresh from the composer’s pen, a series of discoveries and lovely surprises. It’s a subtle difference, to illustrate which I’ll tell you about one of my experiences playing lead clarinet in the high school band. We did “Begin the Beguine,” a standard from the Big Band era, which puts a lingering, wistful melody on top of a syncopated rhythm—which the clarinets especially were supposed to provide. But in the back rows, they were playing the notes as if there was no syncopation; instead of
(skip) daaaa duh (skip) duh (skip) duh (skip) daaaa duh (skip) duh (skip) duh
they were playing
daaaa-duh duh duh daaaa-duh duh duh
and driving me crazy doing it. It’s possible to destroy the Bo Diddley riff, if you happen to know it, in the same way, by playing it as “shave and-a haircut, two bits” rather than ONE and two AND one AND two and ONE and two (skip) ONE (skip).
In any case, the MBO’s enthusiasm for the pieces on this CD translates into a combination of melodic interest and rhythmic drive that makes the CD enjoyable throughout.
The instrumentation is` part of an effort to reproduce an 18th century style. The psaltery, for instance, is a Mexican psaltery; in a picture on the CD insert, it looks a bit like an autoharp, to name another instrument in the same group, all of which use plucked strings with fixed tones. Here it fits right into the style. But this is contemporary music, not historical reenactment, and any antique flavoring is just a means to that end.
The program notes say, “Daniel Armas, born in Mexico, is considered to be the most important and virtuoso player of the traditional Mexican psaltery.”
But the star of this CD is Lawrence playing recorder. Many people are familiar with this as a beginner sort of instrument, the kind a whole class will attempt because at one level it’s easy to play. Forget all that. Lawrence turns the recorder into something magical, a unique voice that it would be shameful to replace with a flute or piccolo. Which he could have done—his distinguished career started with studying baroque flute and recorder at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.
In short, dda25091 is a release of which Divine Art should be proud—and Brandon as well.