Semana Santa in Popayán: 2. Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday)

[J. Richard Haefer continues his observations on the Festival de Música Religiosa in Popayán, Colombia:]

In one of Colombia’s most provincial towns we are delighted to find a marvelous theatre, beautifully decorated with four balconies and excellent acoustics. The Teatro Municipal Guillermo Valencia is home to the Festival de Música Religiosa de Popayán, for the last 52 years a “supplement” to the 456-year old Processions of Semana Santa. While the latter activity is what attracts hundreds of people to Popayán each Holy Week, any cultured person would be happy to attend the two concerts held daily in the town.

On Palm Sunday the first of the twice-daily concerts featured a youth orchestra from the city of Cali on the opposite side of the state of Cauca. Unfortunately the group presented a less than auspicious start to the festival, though I will say nothing more as their entire repertory was secular music. After an couple of hours of local cuisine (marvelous papa relleno, empanada con ají de maní, jugo de curuba) and a tour of the beautiful house of the famous Colombian poet Guillermo León Valencia Castillo (1873-1943), we returned to the theatre named for him to be delighted by a concert featuring the local University of Cauca Orchestra, the Coro Cámara de Popayán (Popayan Chamber Choir), and guest soloists, with every seat in the house filled. An interesting Catholic aside is the fact that Guillermo’s parents added his second name, León, in honor of Pope Leo XIII who became Pope in 1878, a tradition continued with his son, Guillermo León Valencia Muñoz who became president of Colombia in 1962.

After an hour of Rossini and Mozart (an early piano concerto), the second half of the concert featured Mozart’s “Coronation” Mass. I leave it to each individual to decide if this is “sacred” music or “religious” music, suggesting that one keep in mind what Pope St Pius X says about multiple text repetitions in his 1903 motu proprio, especially the repeated Benedictus. I have heard it performed many times as the Ordinary of the Mass, but only for very important occasions. In this concert presentation, as is often the case in concerts, too large an orchestra often obscured the text. If you choose to use this piece in a Mass, be sure to have an appropriate Mozartean size (or even smaller) orchestra. Quality soloists are necessary, especially in the Kyrie, the fugal Amen of the Gloria, and the wonderful Et incarnatus est quartet of the Credo. The soprano solo in the Agnus requires an excellent singer. Unfortunately the soloists in Popayán did not perform as well as expected. One should also keep in mind tempo considerations as a concert presentation requires some different tempi than those used at the Mass.

The local Coro de Cámera de Popayán was founded in 1967 by Maestra Stella Dupont, a native music educator and director of the entire music festival. The thirty members of the chorus are amateurs but performed with precision the moderately difficult mass. It is a tribute to the love of music in this provincial town to find such a fine chorus. They have performed throughout Central and South America and sang at the Mass when Pope Juan Pablo II visited Popayán in 1986. At that time the local cathedral was still in partial ruins following the 1983 earthquake. Interesting is the fact that the earthquake during Holy Week did not stop the Processions as the statues were carried through the rubble of the city.