Music review: ‘Christmas in New Spain’ offers an evening of spirited, cheerful tunes

Teresa Wood - Charles Weaver on guitar for Folger Consort’s “Christmas in New Spain.”

In recent years, the Folger Consort’s annual Christmas concert has undertaken a grand tour of the early European music world, with stops in Spain, Italy, France and Germany. This season, the ensemble traveled to the Americas and unearthed a selection of rarely heard festive music from New Spain. The program, which opened Friday evening at the Folger Shakespeare Library, offered spirited, intimate music-making, if not a profound sense of discovery.

The musical terrain of “Christmas in New Spain” ranged from intricate neo-Renaissance motets sung in Latin to vernacular songs written in a more populist style. While not masterpieces of the vocal repertory, the most persuasive pieces reflected a charmingly eclectic and joyous mix of high and low cultures: polyphonic sophistication, Spanish folk accents and imitations of indigenous practices.

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This high-low distinction carried over into the music-making, which sustained an aura of cheerful intimacy throughout the evening. The vocal soloists, six members of Washington National Cathedral’s chamber ensemble, Cathedra, led by Michael McCarthy, sang with purity, finesse and strong ensemble values.

Occasionally, the vocalists’ high-church refinement appeared at odds with the earthy character of a carol such as “Eso rigor e repente” by Portuguese composer Gaspar Fernandes. Mostly, however, the soloists imbued the songs with character and charm, capturing the delicate lyricism of Fernandes’s lullaby “Xicochi conetzintle.”

The instrumentalists, led by Folger Consort Artistic Director Robert Eisenstein, offered far more rustic playing, although their continuo work was consistently sensitive and deft. The purely instrumental selections on the program offered less of musical interest, with the exception of a striking set of improvisations on a work by Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz, featuring the sensitive interplay of guitarist Charles Weaver and harpist Paula Fagerberg.

Chin is a freelance writer.

Christmas in New Spain

Performed by the Folger Consort, with the chamber ensemble Cathedra. Tuesday through Sunday. $50. Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 E. Capitol St. SE. 202-544-7077. www.folger.edu.

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