When we look back to the disease and mistreatment that arrived with the European colonisation of South America, the role of music in the whole affair is not often the first issue that comes to mind. In actual fact, when Christopher Columbus and other early Spanish and Portuguese conquistadores landed in the Bahamas in the late 15th century, music was used both to affirm cultural identities and to improve interaction with the natives. One of the main missions for settlers in the New World was evangelism. Jesuit missionaries brought with them the polyphonic music of the European Catholic church; thanks to trade generated by the abundance of raw materials, the booming economy paid for many large cathedrals and churches – with musicians and instruments to fill them. Indigenous people were taught to play, sing and make instruments, and in turn their musical traditions influenced the Europeans’. A polyphonic fusion became widespread until after the Jesuits were expelled from Spain and its colonies in 1767.

A 1730 world map by Stoopendaal from the Keur Bible
A 1730 world map by Stoopendaal from the Keur Bible

The Orlando Chamber Choir’s concert this evening at St James’s Church, Piccadilly sought to showcase some of the music that emerged from this colonial period – some of which has only recently been discovered. Accompanied by the Mariachi 1650 Players and four emerging star soloists, the amateur choir was in good hands. They demonstrated differences between music composed in the Spanish Renaissance and Baroque eras, and that written by settlers or second- and third-generation European composers living in the New World.

The influence of Latin American rhythms on European polyphony was marked; the music was lively and the line between sacred and secular blurred. Tonight’s performance of Juan de Zéspedes’ Convidando esta la noche was a prime example of this. Born in Mexico a full 100 years after the Spanish invaded, he sang in and was later master of his local cathedral choir. His music incorporated folk songs and dances – such as the guaracha in the case of this energetic Christmas carol. The choir and soloists alternated phrases and were visibly enjoying themselves as the metre constantly changed from 6/8 to 3/4 and a colourful collection of percussion leapt out from the accompanying ensemble. Another Christmas carol by Juan de Araujo (born in Spain but emigrated to Peru) displayed similar characteristics: Los coflades de la estleya enchanted us with animated vocal lines, syncopation and a tambourine accompaniment. Uneven rhythms were also cleverly used to reflect the text by de Zéspedes’ choirmaster Juan de Padilla, whose Missa Ego flos campi preceded his student’s piece in tonight’s programme.

Also evident in tonight’s concert was a complete mix of languages. Surprisingly, sacred compositions were in Latin, Spanish and indigenous dialects. Opening the performance was the first polyphonic composition printed in the Americas. An anonymous work using the Quechua (Peruvian) text Hanacpachap cussicuinin, it featured in the missionary Juan Bocanegra’s 1631 Ritual Formulario, which gave instructions and tips to other evangelists. A processional hymn to the Virgin Mary, the piece began with a sole drum beat as the choir processed down the centre aisle from the back of the church.

The slightly unconventional group of soloists (two mezzos, a tenor and a baritone) certainly deserves a mention. RCM Opera School graduate Emilie Renard shone in Domenico Zipoli’s O Daliso, a secular cantata for voice and continuo. The interpretation of de Falla’s “Nana” from Siete canciones populares españolas by Kate Symonds-Joy was one of the best performances of the evening. The Mariachi 1650 Players also had their chance to shine in the instrumental Recercada segunda by Diego Ortiz, during which violinist Naomi Burrell played a highly musical solo. Richard Wilberforce directed the Orlando Chamber Choir admirably – although the group found itself in trouble once or twice, betraying the fact that it is not a professional ensemble. During Gaspar Fernández’s Eso rigor e repente, Wilberforce seemed to have to stop and start the piece from the beginning after an ill-timed choir entry. He also unexpectedly ended a later piece (de Araujo’s En el muy gran Padre Ignacio) after just one verse, leaving the choir looking confused and the audience unsure whether or not to applaud. Whether this was due to time constraints or another reason was not clear.

We are very familiar with the standard European Renaissance and Baroque works, and tonight’s concert provided a refreshing twist on a well-known genre. Despite a couple of hiccups during the evening, it was an enjoyable and imaginative programme which certainly aroused interest in a relatively unknown repertoire.