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CityMusic Cleveland enchants with rarely heard 'Creole Mass' and Spanish Sinfonia (review)
Mark Satola, The Plain Dealer, December 05, 2014

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio -- CityMusic Cleveland ventured well beyond the usual parameters of concert presentation in its latest series of free performances around Northeast Ohio, presenting a program that included traditional works by Antonio Sarrier and Mozart, and a Mass setting by 20th-century Argentine composer Ariel Ramirez that employs Latin folk instruments and indigenous South American rhythms and melodies.

Thursday night, CityMusic performed in the strikingly resonant interior of St. Ann's Roman Catholic Church in Cleveland Heights.

Peter Bennett, an early-music specialist who is an associate professor of musicology at Case Western Reserve University, led the performances, beginning with the only surviving work of Spanish composer Sarrier, about whom little is known, save that he lived in the mid-18th century.

The manuscript for Sarrier's Sinfonia in D Major was found in an archive in Mexico, and reveals a composer who, while firmly in the early-Classical mode of his time, brought a note of originality to his music.

Bennett led a performance that featured relaxed but alert tempos and a good ear for balances, and the CityMusic players responded with a timbral lustre that was enhanced nicely by the church's acoustic space. The unusual fugal finale sounded especially burnished, and the individual voices in Sarrier's contrapuntal writing were clearly delineated within the sound-image that Bennett crafted.

That same acoustic space worked slightly against the music in Mozart's Bassoon Concerto in B-flat, which featured CityMusic bassoonist Laura Koepke as the soloist. The bassoon's distinctive voice, reedy and soft, was often at risk of being overwhelmed by the blossoming sound of the accompanying ensemble, though Bennett, much to his credit, kept his players tamped down as much as possible.

Koepke was a subtle and supple soloist, easily navigating Mozart's tricky writing with skill and humor. Her cadenzas were marvelous, and she especially shone in the dreamy Andante, finding its romantic center with unerring artistry.

The second part of the program ventured well beyond the usual concert hall expectations with a performance of the "Misa Criollo," or "Creole Mass" by Ramirez. An instant hit at its first performances in 1964, "Misa Criollo" grew in the fertile cultural soil of the post-Vatican II ethos which allowed the introduction of vernacular elements into traditional liturgical settings.

The main body of CityMusic players left the stage for this music, replaced by a group of performers on traditional South American instruments, including the siku (Bolivian pan pipes), guitar, charanga (a smaller five-stringed guitar), and bombo (a large drum) and other percussion.

The choral parts were sung by the choir of La Sagrada Familia church on Cleveland's near west side, augmented by a handful of singers from Cleveland State University, Trinity Cathedral and Case Western Reserve University.

The score also calls for tenor and baritone soloists, and these roles were ably filled by two young local artists, tenor Joshua Blue and baritone Michael Floriano, both of whom possess pleasing voices and skill beyond their years.

The "Misa Criolla" is a hugely appealing work, full of plaintive devotion and happy rejoicing. The choir brought a piquant tone to their singing, quite different from European-style choral performance, and the accompanying instrumental parts were simply delightful, with noteworthy contributions by Raquel Paradisio (siku), Silverio Lebrón Vargas and George Vega (guitars) and Francisco Lopez (charango and bomba).

CityMusic Cleveland will bring the same program to St. Noel Church in Willoughby Friday night at 7:30, the Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus in Slavic Village Saturday night at 8:00, and Lakewood Congregational Church in Lakewood Sunday afternoon at 4:30.