By Diane Bock
While the history of California's missions is well-documented, many people do not know much about the music from that time. But this month, San Luis Obispo Symphony Chamber Players are giving music fans along the central coast a unique opportunity to experience music from that era, reinterpreted for modern ears.
Music historian and composer Craig Russell has made it his life’s work to research, collect, archive and ultimately create music that reflects a time when California’s landscape was dotted with mission churches.
“There was a lot of wonderful music made back in the 1700s and 1800s,” Russell says.
He visited missions throughout California, and sifted through their musical archives where he found manuscripts, written by the Spanish-Catholic friars, with notations that few people could even read. Russell transcribed, then translated these documents, and was delighted to discover music that was rich, engaging and surprisingly sophisticated.
“It’s like a Lego set,” Russell explains. “All the pieces are in different missions, you have to find them, and put them together.”
Russell was eager to share these gems, and he does so, in a composition titled “Ecos Armonicos,” Spanish for Harmonic Echoes. The piece, written for chamber orchestra, aims to convey the lyrical beauty of the violin, while evoking the rich past of California’s mission era.
Composer Craig Russell (L) listens as violinist Shunske Sato rehearses his composition "Ecos Armonicos."
The piece is in six movements. It begins with “Introit”. It’s the same melody that was sung at the beginning of Mass each day in mission chapels across the state.
“Alleluia”, the second movement, is Russell’s favorite. “I personally love the Alleluia. The orchestra splits into two choirs, and then the violin just sort of soars above it.”
"Ecos Armonicos" will be performed this weekend at three Central Coast missions as part of a special tour by the San Luis Obispo symphony Chamber Orchestra.
One movement, “Marcha Suiza”, was inspired by melodies written by Father Juan Bautista Sancho, a friar at Mission San Antonio, just north of San Luis Obispo. He was a serious scholar of music before his arrival in California and his compositions, written in the early 1800's, were elaborate and complex.
Russell says Sancho introduced instrumental music to the missions. “Juan Bautista Sancho is our Schubert, or our Mozart. He was a phenomenal composer and a great musician."
Russell’s composition ends on an exhilarating note, moving beyond the walls of the mission to the local garrison, or Presidio, with a movement called “Fandango.”
“I conclude the piece with this testament to [how] we all belong to each other, we all belong together.” Russell explains. "And it's actually how a day very likely could end, if it's an important feast day, or a wedding, or a baptism. We'd surely have had a party and we'd be dancing the fandango.”
In addition to the historical influences, friendships among San Luis Obispo’s tight-knit music community helped shape "Ecos Armonicos." Russell wrote the piece for his dear friend Kathleen Lenski, a violinist who has since retired. “There’s something intangible, but I think nevertheless real, when you know who you’re working with. There’s a certain kind of joy and flavor.”
This weekend’s concerts will feature guest violinist, Shunske Sato, who acknowledges the significance of this tour.
“I find it almost in a spiritual sense just kind of inspiring,” Sato says, “Because you’re there, where the music was heard two and three hundred years ago."