A look back at Bolivian Baroque

Ashley SolomonTue 16th August 2016

The Director of Florilegium, Ashley Solomon, on a life-changing recording project

As I sit on a crowded train heading (slowly) towards Axminster and Florilegium's concert in the Branscombe Festival I have one of those rare opportunities to take stock and look back over a quarter of a century of music making with Florilegium. Neal Peres da Costa and I set up our ensemble in 1991 to 'share and enjoy the rich variety of baroque and classical chamber music with friends and colleagues'. This wonderfully naive quote opened our first mission statement back then and despite the passage of time not much has really changed in that sentiment over the years. Membership of Florilegium has naturally evolved over this period, but we have been tremendously lucky in our concert life, performing over 1000 concerts in major concert halls all over the world, and have also managed to build a substantial and varied discography with our Dutch record company Channel Classics. This month sees our latest release (our 27th collaboration) to celebrate our 25th anniversary, and we have returned unsurprisingly to the varied music of Telemann, pre-empting his major anniversary next year. This recording of concertos for multiple instruments with some unusual combinations showcases many of the exceptional musicians who make up the core of the ensemble and demonstrate the breadth and truly international style of composition that is the hallmark of this prolific composer. We are also joined by the mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson in a charming cantata from Telemann's collection entitled Der Harmonische Gottesdienst

As an instrumentalist I have always valued our collaborations with vocalists who bring a new dimension to our chamber music projects, inspiring us to think more vocally and express a text especially in our instrumental music. Over the years we have been fortunate to work with some outstanding singers in the field of early music both in live performances and on CD.

However, over this quarter of a century of music making, one particular project has not only left a lasting impression on me but has had wider educational implications than I couldn't ever have imagined. I am thinking of Bolivia and our work out there over the last 14 or so years since our first invitation to take part in the 3rd International Festival of Renaissance and Baroque Music Misiones de Chiquitos in 2002. This festival based in Santa Cruz celebrates music from the archives that has been preserved and recently restored, and forms the rich cultural heritage known as Missional Baroque. In several of the Jesuit Mission Churches in the Amazonian jungle to the east of Bolivia there exist archives with manuscripts stretching back to the 16th century, music taken to Bolivia (then known as Paraguay) by the Missionaries (mainly Jesuits) and used to convert the local Indians to Christianity. To date we know of close to 20,000 pages of manuscripts held in three main archives.

Many of us remember the film The Mission with Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons back in the 1980s when the wonderful film score, composed by Ennio Morricone allowed us to imagine the sort of music that might have been used in this religious conversion. This was before the discovery of these archives by the musicologist and priest Father Piotr Nawrot. Now there are close to 40 volumes of music published from these archives. I have been fortunate enough to work closely with Father Piotr, Bolivian singers, first soloists and then the choir Arakaendar Bolivia, as well as instrumentalists, helping them to learn and perform this music, and in so doing promoting this rich cultural heritage through recordings and performances within Bolivia and further afield. 

Our projects have been the subject of a “60 minute” documentary for the American CBS channel, the Dutch TV network as well as radio programmes across Europe and the Americas, in addition to three recordings. Convincing Channel Classics to come and record the first volume in Concepcion, the church where many of the first manuscripts were discovered was relatively straightforward. Shipping 300kgs of equipment out from Holland to Bolivia via Brazil and then on to Concepcion for the recording was reasonably challenging. Trying to build a sound proof space in the Church where Jared and I could produce the recording was at first practically impossible. In the end we had to sew Alpaca blankets together to make a sound proof 'space' in the loft area of the church. This seemed like a good idea at the time, but with temperatures outside climbing to 38 degrees centigrade, humidity around 92% and having to record during the day, the wooden roof heated up beautifully and we had our own home made sauna. It was certainly a challenging environment to produce our first volume of Bolivian Baroque.

I have enjoyed many memorable experiences in Bolivia over the years, built strong friendships with musicians and supporters in a country whose basic infrastructure at the start of our journey was fragile. The promotion of this extraordinary archive has been my own particular mission over the last few years and as new manuscripts still continue to appear, we become increasingly aware of the breadth of musical achievement this country has to offer the rest of the world. In turn this helps us to re-evaluate and contextualise the important contribution this enormous archive has made to the history of baroque and classical music.

For more information about Florilegium's recordings for Channel Classics, visit: channelclassics.com

Ashley Solomon

Much of Ashley Solomon’s time is spent working and performing with Florilegium, the ensemble he co-founded in 1991. They have a busy touring schedule and each year perform at major international festivals and concert series throughout Europe as well as the Americas. Florilegium have been recording with Channel Classics since 1993.

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