Newberry Consort’s Singing Nuns

Lisa Drew

Choral music from an earlier period and of a far more specialized sort made up the season finale of the Newberry Consort.

Co-director Ellen Hargis and colleagues presented the second in a series of programs devoted to music from the trove of musical manuscripts at the Newberry Library known as the Mexican choirbooks. These priceless volumes include works by Old World and New World Spanish and Mexican composers, written for the use of nuns singing the mass and worship services in the former Convent of the Incarnation in Mexico City.

While the six surviving choirbooks contain known pieces by such familiar Renaissance figures as Tomas Luis de Victoria, a good many works are by obscure 17th century composers such as Juan de Lienas, Fabian Perez Ximeno and Fray Jacinto. All four composers figured in the absorbing concert heard Friday at St. Clement Church in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood.

Researching, editing, transcribing and (in some cases) reconstructing these hymns, motets, antiphons and polychoral pieces for performance required a great deal of industry on the part of Hargis and her assistants. But the musical results, sung by a total of 10 women’s voices in various-sized configurations and accompanied by women playing chamber organ, viola da gamba, vihuela (early Spanish guitar) and bajon (a buzzy-sounding baroque bassoon), were fascinating, opening a window on a forgotten era.

The generous reverberation of St. Clement Church, like that of the chapel at Loyola, challenges the efforts of choral singers to communicate texts clearly. Still, one could follow the Latin words in the program book, and the ethereal effect of pure-toned female voices floating in a large, airy acoustic was atmospheric compensation.

The nuns of the Convento de Nuestra Senora de la Encarnacion (to revert to the cloister’s Spanish name) must have been well-trained musicians to master pieces as challenging as these.

The nicely blended Newberry vocalists did a fine job of balancing spiritual and temporal emotions, most notably in Ximeno’s lively setting of the bellicose psalm “Dixit Dominus.” The four instrumentalists made the most of their accompanimental and solo duties.

It’s good news that the consort plans to release the program, “Celestial Sirens II,” as a commercial audio recording.