Celebrating Sacred Rhythms

Joseph Holt

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Celebrating Sacred Rhythms Review

by James Manheim

The program on this disc replicates one often given live during the holiday season by the Choral Arts Society of Washington under conductor Joseph Holt. It brings together works that certainly deserve wider exposure but may or may not work well together. All three works -- the Misa Criolla and Navedad Nuestra of Argentine composer Ariel Ramírez and the Missa Luba compiled by Belgian missionary Guido Haazen from improvised Christian sacred singing (in Latin) by Congolese musicians -- occupy a space between folkloric material and classical composition. They are accompanied by traditional percussion instruments, and they do not so much use traditional materials as the basis for a new classical language as just rework them lightly to make them function in concert presentation. José Carreras issued a disc with the same trio of works a few years back, and this one, with its quieter presentation, is preferable. Yet it's questionable whether the program is really a coherent one at all. The histories of the Argentine and Congolese pieces are quite different. The Misa Criolla is an often-performed work that makes modest musical demands; well loved in Latino Catholic churches. There is a delightful tradition in which children of the congregation walk down the aisles, tossing paper flowers into the audience. Non-Latin choirs also perform it, and in general it is a warm, enthusiastic piece of ambassadorship between Latin popular tradition and the rest of the world, and between folklore and concert music. The Missa Luba is something else again, not so easy to duplicate. The original recording of the work (and it's uncertain whether that's the right word to describe what it is) was made in 1963, by the Congolese boy singers who devised it. It has not often been recorded since then, for its particular meeting of two worlds was unique. As it is performed here, the effect is something like what would happen if the harmony singing of South Africa's black township vocal groups was set down on paper and sung by a chorus -- they might get the notes, but something would be missing. The disc, in any event, offers music to enjoy and think about.

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