This is indeed a wonder story. It concerns the Jesuits and their missions, that extraordinary experiment born as a religious order in the times of the Council of Trent as a strong Counterreform movement, with the great figure of St Ignatius of Loyola leading it, and then Carlo Borromeo. Intelligent, cultivated and practical, the Jesuits felt the need of contact with the real world, the integration of the clergy with the people.
When they came to South America late in the Seventeenth century they soon found their calling; strong cultural penetration in cities such as Córdoba, but also the development of "estancias"; and they soon imagined the need for missions in Guaranitic areas in what are now Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia. They founded a communitarian system that was based on respect for the capacities and rights of the natives, and they showed skill in leadership. The mission was centred on the church and the village grew around it, whilst the religious practices blended syncretically Christian beliefs with local traditions.
Chiquitanía is a big region in Bolivia situated two hundred Km. East of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, in the direction of Brazil. San José de Chiquitos is the principal village of a wide zone, and it was originally a mission, as others in that huge wet area, very green and rather hot. The Jesuits came around 1670 and in the following decades the missions were created: Concepción, San Javier, San Ignacio, San Miguel, San Rafael, Santa Ana, Santiago, San José. They were too great a success, and too prosperous: in 1767 the Jesuits were expelled by order of Carlos III. The inertial force of their great work subsisted for many years, but gradually decline sent in. Until our times, when about 35 years ago the Swiss architect Hans Roth took it upon himself to restore the churches, which he did brilliantly.
And then came the discovery of thousands of pages of scores, displaying a rich repertoire of admirable Baroque music, both from Europe and from Chiquitanía, some of them even created by natives, though most are anonymous. North of that region, in the missions of Moxos, another vast reservoir of music was discovered. And then, a Polish Jesuit, Piotr Nawrot, undertook the long-range purpose of editing the music. Recording companies in Bolivia, Argentina and Europe documented the finds with valid interpretations by numerous groups. And 16 years ago Nawrot launched the First International Festival of Renaissance and Baroque Music "Missions of Chiquitos". Hotels were built in the different villages, a circuit was established, and the Festival took place every two years. The recent one was the Eighth.
Although roads are still pretty bad, hotels are comfortable, the churches are lovely and with fine acoustics, and the musical fare was mostly interesting. Concerts also take place at Santa Cruz de la Sierra. The Festival takes too weeks and you go from village to village. Several companies organize this trip, I went by Exprinter and was quite satisfied. It is a complete experience, for concerts are open to everybody and about two thirds of the audience are local people, listening with complete concentration and impeccable manners. The charm of the villages and the warmth of the Bolivianos, as well as the detailed visit of the churches, complete the panorama.
On April 23 I started with the right foot by listening at Concepción to the marvelous Nordic Brass Ensemble, a Norwegian group that was paying a return visit and had quite an odyssey to arrive: more than 40 hours by car from Norway to Madrid, then by air to Buenos Aires and Santa Cruz, and then many tortuous hours of delay for the final two hundred kilometers due to the blocking of roads by Evo Morales "piqueteros"… But they played as if they were fresh and rested, with marvelous precision and intonation, a rich repertoire including music for Charles V, a humoristic "Battalia" by Biber, pieces by Philidor and G. Gabrieli.
At San Ignacio de Velasco the following day we heard the Bolivian group Paz y Bien, 23 choristers and a small orchestra, playing Chiquitos pieces, sacred and instrumental, with reasonable quality. Sunday 25: a substandard concert by the String Orchestra San Rafael, at the homonymous mission (11 a.m.), and then back at San Ignacio (8,30 p.m.) the Wind Ensemble Hombres Nuevos, a Bolivian group prepared with much dedication by the Frenchman Antoine Duhamel, with an ample panorama of European music and several Chiquitos pieces; the playing was quite good, though of course not in the highly professional level of the Norwegians.
Monday 26: Back at Concepción, a very satisfying Polish choir, the Adam Mickiewicz University Choir UAM1 from Poznan, with fine and unknown Polish music, music from many European countries and a couple of pieces from the Bolivia-Perú region. And finally, two concerts at the Parroquia San Roque of Santa Cruz: a group from our Mendoza, the Violeta Club led by Gabriela Guembe, featuring our own Herald collaborator Ramiro Albino in recorders and an outstanding soprano, Griselda López: a fascinating programme of Latin American Baroque music from Mexico to Bolivia, admirably done. And a Spanish group, La Tempestad, an instrumental quartet who gave us with good playing such little-known composers as Gaetano Brunetti, Domingo Porretti and Manuel Cavzaa, along with two of Johann Sebastian Bach´s sons, Carl Philipp Emmanuel and Johann Christoph Friedrich.
For Buenos Aires Herald