Spanning centuries of time and continents of culture, the Singers of New & Ancient Music (SONAM) presented a light afternoon concert of music composed by Spanish-speaking composers or with lyrics by Spanish poets (with only one exception). The concert was presented to benefit Durham’s LEAP program, an English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) tutoring program that specializes its efforts in pre-K bilingual education in the Durham area. To this end, translations of all song texts were provided in the program, from Spanish to English, English to Spanish, and Latin into both English and Spanish. Director Allan Friedman and soprano Salomé Sandoval-McNutt also provided bilingual introductions throughout the concert.

The concert was brief, catering to the mid-afternoon crowd that included SONAM friends and family as well as LEAP students as young as 3. While the ancient music may not have been as accessible to these audience members, there was enough variety throughout to appeal to most everyone – especially Friedman, who exuded childlike enthusiasm for the first two works of the day.

The programming worked its way in more-or-less chronological order, beginning with Tomás Luis de Victoria’s “Ave Regina Caelorum.” This antiphonal work (featuring two separate groups of singers placed opposite the stage from one another) immediately established the choir’s strong, independent parts that remained nearly perfectly balanced. Their pronunciation of the Latin was clear and strong, showing their commitment to the variety of languages in which they were prepared to sing. Second, Andreas de Silva’s “Omnis pulchritudo Domini,” an even earlier work from circa 1500, was beautiful and hopeful. Spanish translations for this piece were missing, but the treatment of the lyrics was again masterful. The swells and falls were lovely, and Jane Lynch’s accompaniment on the impressive organ at the front of the sanctuary, although spare in the composition, added a sonorous underpinning drone to the choir’s earnest tone.

Marking a departure from the sacred works, the next part of the concert featured a couple of very lyrical works, although these were so similar that they were separated by more of a folk tune – which was understandable but a bit strange. “Soneto de la Noche” is a treatment of a Pablo Neruda sonnet, composed by Morten Lauridsen. The first several chords, with the choir coming back out of its antiphonal setup, announced an arrival into contemporary harmony with much more dissonance and complex chords. Sung in Spanish this time, the parts blended in lovely tone and technique, with occasional solis (solos by several individuals on each part) that sounded like small waves rising and falling. The choir executed a miraculous key change, closely followed by another, raising the whole piece to a soaring, exciting middle seemingly effortlessly – but definitely backed up by meticulous preparation!

Interjected between this and Eric Whitacre‘s “A Boy and a Girl,” which features very similar thematic content, Sandoval-McNutt treated the audience to a Venezuelan tune called “Maria Antonia,” by Gualberto Ibarreto. She played the quattro, a four-string guitar-like instrument, and sang alone. The silly lyrics detail a woman who does absurd things like writing with her broom and sweeping with her pen. Sandoval-McNutt’s performance was engaging and funny but still skillful, ending on a “wrong” chord to underscore the absurdity of the title character. The Whitacre piece, a bit of a jump back to “serious” literature, was quite nice. The reflective melodies hearkened back to the antiphonal pieces, along with some long melismas (melodic ornaments). With the addition of silent pauses and hummed melodies, it was chilling but tender.

Continuing with a bit of a dark, morbid theme was Einojuhani Rautavaara‘s Suite de Lorca, a four-part work based on poems of Federico García Lorca. “Canción del Jinete” (Song of the Horseman) featured driving, galloping rhythms and the use of spoken word to portray the movement of a frantic horseman through a windy night. “El Grito” (The Scream) utilized ghoulish vocal slides for drama and programmatic elements of screeching voices. “La Luna Asoma” (The Moon Rises) continued this theme with spooky women’s voices describing the rise of a full moon; the men’s voices entered gradually to echo them like ghosts out of mist. Sandoval-McNutt put the cherry on top as far as atmosphere with an eerie, high-voiced soprano solo, portraying the rise of the female figure of the moon. The final section, “Malagueña,” depicts an intense danse macabre of Death entering a tavern and inviting blood and fear. The use of rhythmic undertones and high, pealing melodies brought the suite to a climactic, abrupt end, evoking much enthusiasm and admiration from the audience.

Guest soloist Itzel Castro was invited to join the choir for arranger Vicente Chavarria‘s setting of “La Llorona,” the legend of a dark, wailing siren woman. Castro, an undergraduate mezzo-soprano from Greensboro, lent her strong, youthful voice to the Mexican ghost story – a nod to this performance on Cinco de Mayo – in a hauntingly beautiful performance pitting her contemporary, belting voice against classically sung dark, melodic lines by the chorus. It was the perfect mix of traditional Mexican melodic idioms with complex contemporary lines and easily the most captivating piece of the afternoon.

The final work, an arrangement of the traditional “Las Amarillas” by Stephen Hatfield, was full of more traditional Mexican dance rhythms, featuring lively clapping, stomping, and fun lyrics. Although muddy and rhythmically not always together or precise (probably owing to the live, cavernous sanctuary), it was a lot of fun and a neat way to end a varied program.

After a standing ovation from a very enthusiastic audience, Friedman introduced an encore performance of the Victoria piece, his favorite. He even ventured into the choir to join in, accompanied by his adorable son in his arms. Although not the most exciting way to end, the enjoyment of the choir was infectious and seemed to bond the whole room in a cloud of positivity which sparked conversation with LEAP volunteers and students and many donations as well.

All proceeds of the concert went straight to the LEAP program, as detailed in the mission statement of SONAM. This group dedicates its volunteer time to non-profits regularly and is itself supported entirely by donations of time and resources of some truly fantastic people.