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Craig Russell: Unearthing California's Musical Missions

Artbound's editorial team has reviewed and rated the most compelling weekly articles. After putting two articles up for a vote, the audience chose this article to be made into a short-format documentary.

For San Luis Obispo composer Craig Russell, there's no more perfect symbol of life in the California missions than the fandango.

First popularized in the 1700s, the fandango was one of the few community events in which people from all levels of society -- from Chumash girls to Spanish soldiers -- could participate, Russell said. "Regardless of your social class or your ethnicity or your occupation or your gender, you're welcome to dance the fandango," the Cal Poly music professor said. "It's the musical expression of 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'"

Russell recreates the fandango and other California mission music in his composition "Ecos armónicos," which showcases snippets of the sacred and secular tunes played throughout the state in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The piece appears -- along with Antonio Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" and Pietro Antonio Locatelli's "Concerto Grosso in D Major, Op. 1 No. 5" -- on the program of the San Luis Obispo Symphony's California Missions Tour concerts in January.

When "Ecos armónicos" is performed Jan.12 at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, "you'll hear the resonating sounds of themes we would have heard in our mission in 1772," Russell said, "dressed in the trappings of the modern string orchestra."

Born in Los Alamos, N.M., Russell studied Baroque guitar and lute performance at the University of New Mexico under Hector Garcia. (His two-volume book, "Santiago de Murcia's 'Codice Saldivar No. 4': A Treasury of Secular Guitar Music From Baroque Mexico," was published in 1995.) He completed his doctorate degree in historical musicology in 1982 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before moving to San Luis Obispo in teach at Cal Poly.

In the introduction to his 2009 book, "From Serra to Sancho: Music and Pageantry in the California Missions," Russell describes the first time he saw Mission San Luis Obispo. Standing in front of that "gorgeous and quizzically inviting building," with its lopsided bell tower, L-shaped floor plan and whitewashed facade, "I found myself asking, 'What did the music sound like in this building two centuries ago?"

Russell has dedicated three decades --including the eight years he spent researching, writing and proofing "From Serra to Sancho" -- to answering that question. His book's title references two men instrumental to the development of California mission music: Franciscan friar Junípero Serra, who founded seven of the 21 California missions, and Mexican Baroque composer Juan Bautista Sancho y Literes, who spent much of his life at Mission San Antonio de Padua just north of the San Luis Obispo County line.

Both were active -- along with Narciso Durán, Manuel de Sumaya and other composers -- during the mission era, which Russell defines as beginning in 1769 with the founding of California's first mission, Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala, and ending in 1848 with the Treaty of Hidalgo, which marked the end of the Mexican-American War and the incorporation of California into the United States.

Contrary to popular belief, Russell said, California's missions were neither paradises nor prison camps. While European settlers in the American colonies viewed the land's original occupants as soulless savages, their Spanish-born counterparts saw California's native peoples as human beings with the potential to become Catholic converts and full Spanish citizens, he explained.

"Overall, it was a welcoming environment," he said, one with a rich musical landscape. "It wasn't the friars who built the missions. It was the Californians working side by side with the friars."

Directed by the friars, many of whom had undergone training in musical theory and performance, the Native American neophytes who constituted the missions' choirs and orchestras performed music that was "resplendent, impressive, varied, complex, erudite, and even virtuoistic," Russell writes in "From Serra to Sancho."

Drawing from influences as varied as Spanish sacred music and secular celebratory song, mission musical styles ranged from the free-flowing, meditative "canto llano," or, "plainchant," practiced at the Church in Rome or the Primate Church of Toledo to the thrilling, theatrical "música moderna," or, "modern music," popularized by Vivaldi and his contemporaries.

"Some of these pieces were part of the repertoire that everybody would have known," said Russell, who traveled throughout California and Mexico in search of musical clues. "There were thousands of manuscripts that would have had the same tune in them."

That's fortunate, since some of that era's more popular songs exist today only as notes scratched on scrap paper or written in the margins of tattered choirbooks. "Ecos armónicos," whose title translates to "harmonic echoes," turns those fragments into fully realized songs.

According to Russell, the practice of transforming traditional tunes into original compositions was pioneered by the likes of 20th-century Italian composer Ottorino Respighi, who used Renaissance lute pieces as the basis for "Ancient Airs of Dances." "No one could mistake these pieces for reproductions of times past (but) there's an affection for the past," Russell said.

The six movements of "Ecos armónicos," which was written with Grammy Award-winning violinist Kathleen Lenski in mind, range from a reverent hymn to a jaunty, joyous military march. It ends with the sensual, dramatic fandango.

"Ecos armónicos," which made its world premiere in January 2008 at Mission San Luis Obispo, marks one of Russell's most recent collaborations with the San Luis Obispo Symphony. Joined by violinist Shunské Sato, the San Luis Obispo Symphony Chamber Players will reprise the piece Jan. 12 with performances at Mission San Luis Obispo and Mission San Miguel and Jan. 13 with a concert at Mission Santa Barbara.

"It has a beauty and a majesty that you can only hear in the acoustics of a mission," said Michael Nowak, the symphony's music director since 1984. "This is where this music belongs."

The San Luis Obispo Symphony has commissioned a handful of pieces from Russell over the years, including "Rhapsody for Horn and Orchestra," written to showcase French horn player Richard Todd, and "Concierto Romantico," highlighting guitarist Jose Maria Gallardo del Rey. The orchestra has performed those pieces in venues as auspicious as the Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall in New York City and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

A few Russell compositions even appear on the symphony's 2003 album, "Craig Russell: Rhapsody for Horn and Orchestra; Middle Earth; Gate City."

"Craig has an enormous understanding of music in general. He's very versatile in that sense," said Nowak, comparing the composer to a skilled actor able to create fully realized characters for every occasion. "He can be Meryl Streep or Tom Hanks and it's done with complete authority and knowledge."

Russell's partnership with Grammy-winning vocal ensemble Chanticleer dates back to the early days of Festival Mozaic, formerly the San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival. In 1992, Russell approached the San Francisco-based group to participate in a series of concerts commemorating Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Americas.

He teamed up with Chanticleer again on their 2008 tour "El Camino Real: Chanticleer Travels the Mission Road," which featured works by Sancho, Sumaya and their contemporaries performed at nine California missions. (Chanticleer has released three albums of mission-era music: 1995's "Mexican Baroque," 1997's "Matins for the Virgin of Guadalupe, 1764" and 2008's "Mission Road.")

Russell, who studied guitar in Spain under Emilio Pujol, will perform as a guest artist May 24 with the Cal Poly Early Music Ensemble at Mission San Luis Obispo. The program features works by California friars Durán and Sancho as well as Peruvian mission-era composers Juan de Araujo, José Orejón y Aparicio and Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco.

According to Russell, California mission music -- with its melding of Old World traditions and New World innovation -- embodies the intrinsic nature of the state, Russell said. "The ideas that arrive and intertwine [here] are what makes us California," he said.

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