Orrego Salas’ La Ciudad Celeste and Other Choral Works CD Review

ORREGO-SALAS La ciudad celeste for Baritone, Chorus, and Orchestra, Op. 1051. Romance a la divino, Op. 72. Villancico, Op. 63. Tres romances pastorales, Op. 104. Tres madrigals, Op. 625. Tres cánticos sagrados, Op. 1086  —  1,5Carmen Helena Téllez, cond; 6Jan Harrington, cond; 1Benjamin Ely (bar); 6Robert Samels (bs); 1,5Indiana University Contemporary Vocal Ens; 1,2,3,4,6Indiana University Singers; 1,6Indiana University Ch O  —  LMAC 2007-01 OB (63:54 &)


Chilean composer Juan Orrego-Salas is new to me, but I’m going to skip the usual biographical details because Robert Schulslaper interviewed Carmen Helena Téllez, one of the conductors on this CD, in 36:2, an interview in which he discussed Orrego-Salas with Téllez and covered at length the Latin American Music Center (LAMC) affiliated to the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. In that same issue, complementing Schulslaper’s interview, were reviews by other contributors of a number of LAMC’s albums containing works by Orrego-Salas as well as a number of other Latin American composers. The album under review here, however, was not among those reviewed, and, as you can see from the headnote, this disc is devoted exclusively to Orrego-Salas.

The major work presented here is La ciudad celeste (The Celestial City), a sacred cantata based on Chapter XXI of the Book of Revelation by John the Evangelist. Lasting almost 30 minutes, the composition is scored for solo baritone, chorus, and orchestra. Cast in the role of the Evangelist is Benjamin Ely, who takes the part of first-person narrator to the chorus in a semi-declamatory singing style. Orrego-Salas’s musical setting is in a modern idiom that relies on dissonant tone clustering, a harmonic palette that is not technically atonal but rather tonally vague or non-specific, and a free-flowing rhythm that is ametric. Yet, there’s a ritualistic quality to the piece—Téllez describes it as “surrealistic”—that I find highly absorbing, even riveting. It draws you into the increasingly unhinged hallucinatory visions of the Evangelist’s phantasms, which work themselves into a trance-like state, culminating in an ecstatic, major-chord “Alleluia.”

The remaining pieces are comparatively short but no less engrossing. Both Romance a la divino and Villancico evoke the type of Nativity pieces found in the Cancionero musical de Palacio, a collection of popular song from the 16th-century Spanish Court. Orrego-Salas beautifully emulates the euphonious harmony and free-flowing style of Renaissance polyphony without directly imitating the letter of its voice-leading rules in these lovely a capella numbers. From these stylized Renaissance pieces, Orrego-Salas moves on to an early 17th-century baroque madrigal style. Monteverdi, occasionally Gesualdo, and, of course, the Spanish villancico tradition come to mind in the exquisitely beautiful Tres romances pastorales. Love found and lost, pangs of jealousy and hurt are the subjects of these three touching songs, two of them to poems by Luis de Góngora and one to a poem by Orrego-Salas himself.

Faithfulness to Renaissance and early baroque models marks Orrego-Salas’s Tres madrigals of 1967, which, nonetheless, now adopt a more modern lingua franca, introducing a degree of dissonance and cross-relations into the vocal parts not yet evident in his earlier work. Framing the pieces for a capella chorus, the disc closes with Tres cánticos sagrados, a triptych for mixed chorus and an instrumental ensemble composed of a string quartet, flute, clarinet, horn, harp, and percussion. Like La ciudad celeste, the work with which the program opens, Tres cánticos sagrados also takes its texts from scriptural sources, though this time not as apocalyptic as Revelations. Orrego-Salas now sets verses from Psalms, Lamentations, and the Vespers service for the Feast of the Holy Name. Again, as in La ciudad celeste, there is a deeply spiritual feeling to the music, but rather than it sounding ritualistic, it projects a lyricism that is alternately of soaring rapture and of prayerful contemplation, which, at moments, reminded me of passages in Poulenc’s Gloria.

Truthfully, when I received this release for review, I wasn’t sure how I would react to it. I’d never heard any of Orrego-Salas’s music before, and I had no real knowledge of the cultural elements that inform his work. Having listened to the disc, more than once, I can say that I find this music of a haunting beauty that makes me want to hear it again and again. Conductors Carmen Helena Téllez and Jan Harrington, and the players and singers of Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music are steeped in this music and perform it with conviction and very deep feeling. Baritone Benjamin Ely and Robert Samels are both rock-solid in their delivery and dramatic thrust. This was a real ear-opener for me, and I can’t recommend it to you too highly.

Jerry Dubins

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