It would be easy to underestimate the skill of The Rose Ensemble, a group of stellar St. Paul singers accompanied by three strings (and, on Sunday evening, a guest percussionist).
Their program, “Celebremos el Niño: Delights of the Mexican Baroque,” was so approachable and fun, details like articulation, tone and balance — all of which were excellent — blended into simple pleasure.
The 12th annual Madison Early Music Festival runs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison through Sunday, July 16. This year, the theme is “El Nuevo Mundo: The Age of Exploration in the New World,” and upcoming performers include Ensemble Viscera, a group of guitars and voices, and the quartet Chatham Baroque.
The Rose Ensemble performed the second show of the week, a delightful variety of Mexican dances and holiday music from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. The ensemble, led by Jordan Sramek, consists of 10 singers, viola da gamba (like a cello), vihuela de mano (like a softer version of the guitar) and violin.
I attended the Rose Ensemble concert looking for entertainment above education. The early music festival offers free lectures beginning an hour before each performance; this time, I did not attend.
Still, there was plenty to learn just by listening. We heard lively, dancing ballads (“jácaras”) and villancicos, Spanish musical poems akin to madrigals.
The singers layered their voices expertly in “Niño Dios d’amor herido” (“Child God wounded by love”), while parts of “Un ciego que contrabajo canta coplas” (“A blind man sings verses”) sounded like operatic recitative.
A soprano and an alto blended beautifully on “Risueña la aurora” (“Smiling, the dawn”), like a Celtic lullaby. All five women were in excellent form on the ethereal, rich “Al dormir el sol” (“When the sun sleeps”).
Percussionist Thomas Zajac picked up castanets for the brief instrumental “Pavana,” and a drum to make hoof-beats for the entertaining “Las estreyas se rien.”
The latter was a poem about a “juego de cañas,” or “cane game,” in which angels joust in the sky on Christmas night. Beyond the pleasure to be had in listening, many lyrics revealed a fascinating cultural history entwined with colonization, the music of African slaves and the use of secular rhythms to enliven Christian worship.
But it was possible to enjoy to the Rose Ensemble’s rendition of a dramatic guaracha (“Convidando esta la noche”), full of shaking maracas and uptempo refrains, without knowing a thing about it.
When an ensemble is as clear, tuneful and creative as this one, the only mandate is to listen, and listen well.