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The Dawning of an Old Music Order

Josef Woodard is an occasional contributor to Calendar

The San Francisco-based vocal group Chanticleer has made a name for itself from its polished musical gifts and its dedication to wide-ranging programming. With its current tour, which brings the 12-man ensemble to several venues in Southern California this week, Chanticleer digs a little deeper in the exotic--and finds it in our own backyard.

The group’s ambitious performance schedule comes on the heels of its new recording, “Matins for the Virgin of Guadalupe” by 18th century composer Ignacio de Jerusalem, on the Teldec label. It’s a sequel of sorts to their 1994 album “Mexican Baroque.”

This strain of Chanticleer’s musical life crystallizes a larger “roots” movement, as scholars unearth more of California’s past. Suddenly, music made hundreds of years ago in Mexico City and the California Missions is shedding light on cultural life in the New World, before Manifest Destiny secured this landscape as part of the United States.

Joined by an orchestra of period instruments, Chanticleer will be performing the work of Jerusalem (1708-1769) and Manuel de Zumaya (1678-1755) at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Saturday, and at the San Gabriel Mission, as part of the Chamber Music in Historic Sites series, next Sunday. They’ll also perform this week or next at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, UC Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara Mission, the California Center for the Arts in Escondido, and the Irvine Barclay Theatre, before heading to Arizona, Texas and, finally, Mexico. That last leg will represent an oblique homecoming, presenting music barely known on its native soil.

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Beyond the music itself, the new/old music movement has inherent socio-historical interests, and one of the most passionate scholars in the field is Craig Russell, based at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. It was Russell who approached Chanticleer in 1992 about singing Mexican Baroque music, after assembling music discovered by a colleague, John Koegel, in a vault at the San Fernando Mission.

The ensemble performed some of that music first at a conference at the university. Soon thereafter they recorded “Mexican Baroque,” which includes a poly-choral Mass in D, assembled by Russell and attributed to Jerusalem, who was in charge of music at the Mexico City Cathedral in the mid-1700s, and whose compositions were ultimately dispersed throughout the California mission system.

Chanticleer isn’t alone in reviving lost Mexican Mission treasures. In 1976, an L.A.-based vocal group led by Ventura composer John Biggs released a tape that Russell calls “a pioneering recording of mission music. [It] was really good, and out there before--I say this facetiously--anybody cared.”

Russell also points to the work of Juan Pedro Gaffney, founder/aristic director of Coro Hispanico de San Francisco who has been presenting this music for 20 years. Last fall, the Los Angeles-based vocal group Zephyr released its second recording, a compilation of rediscovered Mission music, followed by performances in local missions.

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“A wonderful result of all this interest is that we end up learning a lot about ourselves,” Russell said from his home in San Luis Obispo, another mission town. “This isn’t music from some remote and distant place, this is music that would have been performed at the missions that we all drive by every day. To me, that’s exciting. It’s somewhat akin to discovering facts about your great-grandfather. It’s something that belongs in our blood, so to speak.”

Listening to Chanticleer’s new album, one hears a strong and binding link to European music of the day--the Matins (which is Latin for “morning” and a form of liturgical music designated for morning prayers) dates from 1764--but with some subtle twists. Jerusalem was an Italian emigre who first came to the cosmopolitan outpost of Mexico City as a violinist, but who wound up composing sacred music and serving as chapel master for 20 years in the cathedral.

“It sounds European,” agrees Joseph Jennings, the musical director of Chanticleer, “yet you hear it and think, ‘No, this is not Haydn or Vivaldi or Pergolesi.’ There’s something more earthy about this music. I suppose that’s indicative of the people and the situations surrounding where the music was written. I hear something [in it] that sounds like real church music; there’s something more vernacular about it.”

One vernacular element is its reference to Our Lady of Gaudalupe--the Mexican Madonna who, according to the Catholic Church, appeared to the Indian Juan Diego in 1531. It’s the New World’s only church-sanctioned Virgin sighting.

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But in technical terms, the music’s ties to the New World are a little harder to pin down. “Unless you rummage around in a lot of scores,” explains Russell, “it’s hard to tell what’s Mexican and what’s not. But there are many things about it that make it sound like it’s not French or English or German. This is New World music.” In the Matins for the Virgin of Guadalupe, Russell points out, the composer reveals both his inventiveness and an indigenous style by blending plainchant and polyphony, interwoven with “versos"--symphonic passages, a practice particular to the Mexico City Chapel, providing musical contrast with the chant elements.

For his part, Russell followed a circuitous route to his current passion. He was doing research in the Mexico City Cathedral archives, studying Spanish guitar music, as a practitioner and a musicologist. Once there, his snooping led him in a new direction.

“I moved laterally into choral music, and that turned out to be a gold mine,” he said. “It was like getting a key to a hidden room in the Louvre, where nobody’s been for centuries. You shine a flashlight, and find something remarkable.”

What he found were the musical manuscripts of everyday worship at the cathedral.

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“All these composers who were, at best, vague names to me, began to be real creative artists with a voice and a sound,” he said. “I was beside myself. I began collecting sources, bringing my camera around and making microfilm so I could work with it.”

Russell’s work entailed both digging up old scores and then assembling the different parts into performable editions. “It’s like finding broken shards of a pot, or many pots actually, and then sorting out which shards go with which pot, and then gluing it back together. I was doing that musically.”

Until Russell’s efforts, and that of colleagues like Koegel, this music was mostly forgotten. “We’re inclined to overlook things under our noses,” Russell offered. “That’s human nature. Things far away are exotic, so if we’re looking for a great poet, we’ll look to Europe or the East Coast. You don’t ask your grandmother, who may have written some great poetry. It’s a lot easier to underestimate someone who’s in the kitchen who’s flipping the omelet.

“To some extent, because of the proximity of the missions, there’s no assumption of ‘Oh my goodness, there’s buried treasure in there.’ The opposing factor is that there’s an assumption of ‘Well, it’s not going to be as good as music from France or Italy.’ When we actually dig in and see what was around, that’s not true. We hold our own just fine.”

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“We could just go down the list. The [Jerusalem] Virgin of Guadalupe is, I think, a wonderful piece, but it’s not unique in its excellence by any means. We could have done the Matins for the Virgin of Guadalupe by Francisco Delgado. The Matins for the Assumption by Jerusalem is really neat, and the Matins for St. Peter by Zumaya is really amazing. It’s sort of like naming Bach cantatas. You might have a favorite and one might be a little stronger than another, but I can’t think of any pieces by Bach that are lemons.”

Chanticleer, says Jennings, hopes to eventually concertize with this music in Europe, partly to show the mother continent what it has been missing.

“This is music of the Americas. They need to hear it and know that, yes, there is and was civilization and culture over here.”

* Chanticleer performs “Matins for the Virgin of Guadalupe” Monday at 8 p.m., Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Grand Avenue, $18-$32. (805) 756-2787; Tuesday at 8 p.m., Campbell Hall, UC Santa Barbara, $12-$22. (805) 893-3535; Wednesday at 1 p.m (lecture/demonstration), Santa Barbara Mission, 2201 Laguna St., $3, tickets available at the door; Friday at 8 p.m., California Center for the Performing Arts, 340 N. Escondido Blvd., Escondido, $23-$31. (760) 738-4100; Saturday at 8 p.m., Royce Hall, UCLA, $10-$35. (310) 825-2101; May 3 at 5 and 7 p.m. San Gabriel Mission, 537 W. Mission Dr., $27-$30, (310) 954-4300.

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