“It’s the convent group versus the street group.”
That’s how guest director Ellen Hargis describes the music of “A Mexican Christmas,” to be performed on Dec. 9 at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston.
The “Convent Ensemble,” 13 women, will be singing and playing religious music that dates back to the 17th century in Mexico.
The second group in the concert, the “Villancicos Ensemble,” will sing Christmas music from the same period, only it was music of the villagers, not of the nuns.
Francy Acosta leads the 15-member, mixed gender Villancicos group. Acosta is part of the husband-and-wife duo called EnsAmble Ad-Hoc. She and husband Jose’ Luis Posada are from Colombia.
The two groups, Convent and Villancicos (Christmas carol in many Latin countries) will alternate songs during the concert, first one, then the other. And that is definitely by design, to come as close to the 17th century musical reality as is possible in 21st century Evanston.
As Acosta explains, villagers outside the convent walls heard the beautiful music sung by the cloistered nuns inside.
At the same time, those villagers sang their own “very different” and more rhythmic Christmas songs, which presumably the nuns in the convent could hear as well.
“The contrast between the very liturgical sounds” from the nuns and the “sort of party” musical atmosphere outside, Acosta says, created a very special environment.
While the villager music was passed from generation to generation, the religious music in the convent was written down.
The Convent Ensemble is part of the Newberry Consort, a now-independent group which originated with Chicago’s Newberry Library.
Hargis and her husband David Douglass co-directed the Consort for more than a dozen years.
In the upcoming performance, Hargis says some liturgical music from the now-defunct Convent of the Encarnacion in Mexico City will be featured.
The arrangement books, which Hargis calls “unique treasures,” date to the 17th century.
The volumes, she notes, were donated to the Newberry in the 1930s or 40s, but the music itself has never been sung in public since … until now.
“We’ll be doing a premiere,” Hargis says.
“It’s like discovering a new world of music.”
Some of the instruments for that new world will look familiar, like a guitar and a harp. Others are more specific to 17th century time and place.
Besides recreating, as best as possible, the feel of 17th-century Mexico, the concert will also reproduce the sense of the convent inside and the villagers outside.
The Convent Ensemble will be in the choir stall, almost invisible. It’s as if they’re behind convent walls.
The Villancicos singers will be in front of the altar, representing the village on the other side.
For the last song, the Convent group will emerge from the choir stalls and join the Villancicos singers in the main church for a performance together.
“People will open their eyes,” Acosta says, “and say I had no idea this is Mexican music.”
The “Mexican Christmas” concert is at 8 p.m. on Dec. 9, in the church at 939 Hinman Ave.
Ticket information is available online.