How they go for Baroque in Bolivia

Times Staff Writer

The first attempt to set up a Jesuit settlement here amid the tropical expanses of what is now eastern Bolivia didn't go very well.

Father Lucas Caballero, the founder of this town, was killed in 1711 by Puyzocas Indians who rebuffed his advances -- perhaps thinking he was in cahoots with the slave traders who regularly hauled off lowland natives.

By 1753, however, when Father Martin Schmid arrived on the scene, things had much improved. The lanky, multitalented Swiss native set about building over-the-top mission churches, among the finest in the Americas, and inculcating the locals with the value of European church music -- while himself savoring a good tune as he spread the gospel in the jungle, setting up workshops to produce violins and other instruments.

"I live and enjoy an excellent, stable state of health," Schmid wrote to his Jesuit superior. "My life is a happy one and even joyous, since I sing -- sometimes as in the Tyrol -- and I play all the instruments that I like."

The melodious spirit of this merry Jesuit has been much in evidence here for 10 days as hundreds of musicians from Europe, the United States, Asia and Latin America have converged for the sixth edition of what is surely one of the most unusual celebrations of its kind: the International Festival of Renaissance and Baroque American Music.

The event, which ends Sunday and is also known as the Chiquitos Missions Festival, boasts a unique musical pedigree. Along with the standard Baroque repertoire, invited groups typically perform one or more works rescued from the "lost" mission archives -- almost 11,000 pages of sacred music rescued in the 1970s during renovations of the remaining 17th and 18th century Jesuit missions situated in two vast regions known as Chiquitania (hence "Chiquitos") and neighboring Moxos.

That extraordinary archive, now preserved in tiny Concepcion and at another site in Moxos, includes choir music, much of it with texts in Latin or Indian languages, instrumental pieces and several full-length operas, says Piotr Nawrot, a Polish missionary with a doctorate in music from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., who has made transcription of the pages his life's work. Nawrot, who received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his efforts, is also the artistic director of the festival.

"We thought this was a joke when we first heard about it," Larry Wright, trumpet player for the Philadelphia Brass quintet, one of 45 groups appearing at the 2006 conclave, said this week. "A Baroque concert in Bolivia?"

In all, 625 musicians representing 19 countries are expected to have performed by the close of the 11-day extravaganza. Major foundations and governments, including Holland's Prince Klaus Foundation and the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia's administrative capital, La Paz, provided financial support, along with the Bolivian provincial government here. Organizers expect this year's crowds to have surpassed the 70,000 who came to festival concerts two years ago. Most performances are free.

"This festival is magical," declared Shalev Ad-El, 38, an Israeli regarded as one of Europe's top harpsichord players. "You can feel the spirit of the missions."

Indeed, what inspired the biennial festival is the astonishing collection of Jesuit missions strung out in small towns and villages across the immense, sweltering region. UNESCO declared the six remaining original missions and their communities World Heritage sites in 1990. Since then, the "mission tour" has become an international tourist destination.

Initially, the Jesuits were summoned here in part to provide the forest Indians a measure of protection from the depredations of human traffickers seeking workers for the hellish mines of Potosi, the fabled Andean mountain whose lode of silver subsidized the Spanish crown for generations. Several thousand Indians lived on each Jesuit settlement in a kind of communal setting, but one always focusing on the church.

The Jesuits used music as an inspirational tool, and each mission had an orchestra and choir, with great allure for the Indians, who had their own music and dance traditions. The composers of the recovered music were a mix of Europeans, European-ancestry settlers and Indians, experts say, and most remain anonymous -- though a new trove of previously unknown works by the Italian Domenico Zipoli (1688-1726) was discovered.

"The Jesuits considered music one of the best instruments of evangelization," said Alcides Parejas Moreno, a historian who is now president of the festival.

Baroque music has been recovered in churches throughout Latin America, including in an important cache in the cathedral of Bolivia's legal capital, Sucre. But, says Father Nawrot, the so-called Cathedral Baroque, with its heavy Spanish style, is distinct from the "Mission" Baroque style rescued here, which has Italian, German and Central European influences.

"To actually perform this music in the churches where it was originally meant to be played is something very special," said Ryo Terakado, 44, a Bolivian-born Japanese violinist based in Belgium who performed here with Ad-El, the Israeli harpsichordist.

But just as important, perhaps, the gathering has helped spark a revival of musicianship among the region's young, including Indian youths in the impoverished mission towns and residents of Santa Cruz, the provincial capital, and other parts of Bolivia -- South America's poorest nation, forever buffeted by political and social instability. A few have even launched unlikely musical careers and discovered latent talents, even experiencing the heretofore unheard-of opportunity to go off to study in Europe or the United States with scholarships.

Today, more than a dozen orchestras dot the zone, providing musical exposure and training to more than 2,000 youngsters. Foundations, universities and private individuals have donated instruments. Tutors are also working with local choruses across the region.

"This festival has helped change my life. It is like a dream," said Henry Villca, 27, an indigenous singer from outside La Paz now studying voice in Amsterdam after choral appearances there and in London, Vienna and elsewhere. "I always thought I would join the army, like my father. It never occurred to me when I was young that I could make my living from music."

Singer Angelica Monje said the festival serves to transcend the stereotypes of Bolivia as a drug-ridden, corrupt and backward state. "We have this music inside our hearts in Bolivia, but it's not a way to make a living in this country," said Monje, 18, a communications student who performed with a full Bolivian chorus that joined the London-based chamber music group Florilegium here this year.

The essence of the festival remains the Jesuit missions and the youngsters who are finding inspiration in a hallowed legacy that wins praise even from accomplished performers from the First World.

"It makes one feel proud when musicians from Europe come here and say they learn from us, just as we surely learn from them," said Ariel Rodriguez, 19, a carpenter, choir member and singer in the indigenous San Javier mission choir. His choir performed alongside the Swiss group Musica Fiorita in Martin Schmid's magnificent church in San Javier.

"The experience raises our spirits," Rodriguez said, "and gives us great joy and a belief in possibilities."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World