The second annual Washington Early Music Festival is underway -- a month-long exploration of music that might have been on the early explorers' playlists, whether on this side on the Atlantic or the other.

The bulk of the festival (this year's theme: "Spain and the New World") is being held at St. Mark's Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill, where the ensemble Hesperus kicked off the festivities Friday with a concert featuring the music of 16th-century Spain and the music of indigenous peoples in the Americas during the 17th and 18th centuries. Using various combinations of recorders and flutes, bowed and plucked strings and the human voice, Hesperus conjured up the sounds of courtly dance music in Renaissance Spain as easily as it reproduced the songs of Canichanas Indians in the New World.

Soprano Rosa Lamoreaux sang in an impressive number of languages with such lively expression that one didn't need to follow the page of translations to understand the lyrics. Her instrumental counterpart, Scott Reiss, was equally engaging in his melodies on recorders and flutes. The sounds of Tina Chancey's early violin danced with the recorder melodies, while her viola da gamba enhanced the plaintive qualities of particular pieces. Grant Herreid added distinctive flavor with the vihuela -- a cross between guitar and lute.

At a Saturday night show at St. Mary Mother of God Catholic Church, the voices of Chantry, led by Music Director David Taylor, joined with the period instruments of Piffaro to present a beautiful program of Spanish Renaissance sacred works honoring the Virgin Mary.

When the two ensembles performed separately, the acoustics of Washington's oldest Catholic church warmly buoyed each in polyphonic works by Tomas Luis de Victoria, Francisco Guerrero and Nicolas Gombert, among others. But often when the groups performed jointly, the bright-sounding shawms (double reeds) tended to overpower the 14 singers. With recorders and sackbuts (trombones), balance was rarely a problem, and by mid-program, instrumentalists and vocalists had achieved a glorious equilibrium.

The Washington Early Music Festival continues through June 26, featuring several local groups and other performers from around the world. For complete festival details, go to

-- Grace Jean