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Amuse offers Villa-Lobos Mass
by Susan Elliott for Vocal Area Network
Posted June 6, 2010

Heitor Villa-LobosHeitor Villa-Lobos is, hands-down, Brazil's most important composer, having written over 2,000 choral, vocal, orchestral, opera and chamber works during his industrious lifetime (1887-1959). He was not academically trained, which explains the unrestricted rhythmic and melodic accessibility to much of his work -- and, in accordance with the spirit of time, he was intensely nationalistic. Brazil was as much of a polyglot nation in the 1900s as the United States is today, and Villa-Lobos' research into and fascination with its folk music is easily detectable throughout his oeuvre.

For our next concert, on Sunday, June 13 at 4:00 PM at the Church of St. Ignatius of Antioch (552 West End Avenue, at 87th Street), the singers of Amuse are preparing Missa São Sebastião, an a cappella work Villa-Lobos wrote in 1937 for a choir of Rio de Janeiro music teachers he had assembled five years earlier known as "Orfeão de Professores." And although the piece is indeed a mass -- St. Sebastian was the patron saint of Rio de Janeiro -- musically, it is a typically exotic Villa-Lobos mash-up, in this case of the formal structures of 16th-century polyphony with the secular and folk elements indigenous to Latin America.

As a longtime chorus geek, I confess that my primary interest is almost always musical; I don't pay as much attention to text as I should, especially when it's in a language I don't understand in the first place.

So when it came time to learn the "Sanctus" of the Villa-Lobos Mass, my main focus was the tricky two-against-three passages. This Sanctus is a continuous tug of war among the three parts, and nobody's supposed to win. Mastering the two versus three challenge, once we assembled as a group for the first time, took some doing, not to mention patience on the part of our guest conductor, Phillip Cheah. You know the drill: Group I chants DA DA, DA DA, DA DA while Group II simultaneously intones da-da-da; da-da-da; da-da-da. Tiresome, hardly original, highly effective.

We finally nailed it, technically.  But musically there still wasn't anything much of interest happening. So we examined the meaning of the text:

Holy, Holy, Holy,
Lord God of Hosts;
Heaven and earth are full of Your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.

We tried once more, this time with appropriate respect and religiosity.

That didn't do it either.

Finally, reminding us that Villa-Lobos' music is known for it eclectic stylistic mix, not only from the rhythm but also the harmonies and sinewy melodic lines, and that he was unafraid to mix the sacred and the secular, Phillip suggested that we "get sexy."

Is he serious?  With THIS text?  No way.

But, like good geeks, we followed our leader's directions.
It worked. The syllables flowed as smoothly as professional hula dancers in grass skirts. Now how often does THAT image come to mind when listening to a setting of the mass?

All of which is to say, Villa-Lobos' Missa São Sebastião is no ordinary choral piece. So you'd best come and hear it.

Susan Elliott sings with Amuse.

Content Contact: Susan Elliott.
Revision Date: June 6, 2010.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

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