Wednesday, December 21, 2011

musica sacra, part II

It was a concert at Mission San Francisco de Borja Adac (Mexico) that lead to the recording of Musica Sacra. Part II of this story talks about what it took to put together a concert at a remote mission where nobody had sung for the passed 200 years. 

Preparations for the concert started a year before, when I began selecting and studying the music to be performed. Since the mission had no instruments for accompaniment, some inventiveness was required. The solution was to pre-record the piano parts, and use those while singing live at the actual concert. Thankfully, the acoustics of the mission were good enough that amplification of my voice wasn't required. Because there was no electricity in or around the mission, the speakers for the piano accompaniment had to be hooked up to a car battery.  The weeks leading up to the day of the concert were spent checking and double-checking everything. Forgetting even one cable would have been disastrous.

Baja California Norte
A week prior to the concert we drove the ten hour drive from San Diego to Bahia de los Angeles. After the first hectic hours, traffic slowed down, except for the always present semi trucks that leave terrifying little space to pass. In El Rosario we filled up on gas and had a quick bite to eat at "Mama Espinosa's", a classic for Baja travelers.

After El Rosario the landscape turns magical and fills up with boojum trees, cardones, elephant trees and millions of other cacti. I've traveled this road many times but will always be moved by its beauty. Just before sunset Bahia de los Angeles appeared in front of us.

Bahia de los Angeles
The concert was sponsored by Comanji, a Mexican non-profit organisation in charge of raising funds to restore the missions of Baja California. A banquet, catered by Beatriz Bremer, was organized to follow the concert. Father Gabriel, my contact throughout the months that lead up to the event, spent days preparing the mission and was responsible for sending out invitations. It has been a while ago now, but quite some funds to restore the mission were raised by this benefit concert. 

A couple of days before the concert the local hairdresser, who provided me with a fresh trim, offered to announce the upcoming concert by radio since, at the time, Bahia de los Angeles did not have phone lines. He also offered to come and do my hair the day of the concert. Unfortunately, that day gas stations in Bahia de los Angeles ran out of gas (not uncommon), and a lot of people who would otherwise have taken the trip to the mission were unable to do so. 

Road to Mission San Borja
My husband and I drove to the mission a day before the concert. It was a bumpy two hour drive over remote, desert-like terrain. It was only March but already very hot. Upon arrival Father Gabriel assigned us a private camping spot behind the mission, and the afternoon was spent on rehearsing and setting up. Everybody around offered their help, and it was a relief when everything worked the way I had planned. 

Later that night we hung out behind our camper while listening to howling coyotes and chirping birds in the otherwise silent desert. We talked to father Gabriel about the more serious topics of life while sipping our wine, and took a leisurely stroll to the church where someone was strumming his guitar. A surprising amount of people had decided, just like us, to come up a day early and enjoy the beauty of this serene spot.  

Camping Spot

However, the serenity of the place didn't include "showers", which turned out to be my next challenge. Fortunately, the mission's original orchards are still intact with their natural hot springs, which I was able to bathe in the morning of the concert. What a way to prepare for a concert!

Getting Ready

Our camper had been turned into a dressing room, and my Italian friend, Simona, helped me get my skin and hair in shape. A small fan was used to style my hair, since we had no hair dryer. My dress had been bagged in plastic in the camper, as the dust of Baja California gets into everything.  Somehow it all worked out, and I never had as much fun preparing for a concert.

A packed church

I heard rumors of how well attended the concert was going to be, but was still surprised to be confronted with a packed church. After Father Gabriel introduced me, I walked on stage and  it felt like what the audience expected and what I had to offer were in perfect harmony.

In Concert
For this concert, I had mostly selected arias from the times that the missions were formed. Bach, Caccini, Gounod, and Sumaya were among the composers I picked.

Carlos Lazcano, journalist and expert on the topic of the missions in Baja California, reviewed the concert in the Ensenada newspaper "El Vigia". “La mezzo-soprano holandesa Christel Veraart brindó un concierto angelical en el desierto central”  

After the concert there was a catered event, and tables had been elegantly set inside the old mission's buildings, and food and wine were served out front underneath the shade of white tents. We ended up celebrating all day in a wonderful and joyful atmosphere.
Musica Sacra 
for sale on 
AmazonCDbaby, Itunes

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

musica sacra, part I

The Story behind Musica Sacra
It was around Thanksgiving 2005 that I first visited Bahia de Los Angeles and heard of Mission “San Borja", up in the San Borja mountains and surrounded by its original orchards with hot springs from its founding days. I heard about Indian rock art nearby, about lava-strewn hillsides, and the pristine beauty and serenity of this remote place, founded by the Jesuit Father Wenceslaus Linck in 1762.

These stories were too intriguing to leave without checking so, Thanksgiving 2005 was spent at “San Francisco de Borja Adac” (which turned out to be the mission’s full name). “San Francisco”, named after St. Francis of Assisi, lover of all creation, champion of justice, patron saint of animals and the environment. “Borja” because of the endowment by a wealthy Italian noblewoman, Maria de Borja, who funded the foundation and building. “Adac”,  the name given to this place by the native Cochimi whose place it was before Europeans arrived.

Born and raised in The Netherlands but having lived in the US since 2001 might explain my craving for buildings that take you back to times long gone but hard to find at this side of the world. San Borja definitely fed into that need and I felt myself dreaming about singing up there.

On the way back into Bahia de Los Angeles I mention my plans to an Italian from Rome, who now lives in Mexico permanently with his family. As true Roman, who craves culture, his reactions to the concert plans are enthusiastic and encouraging. He suggests talking to Father Gabriel, who according to him is from Rome too. At least that is the way I understood it. When I meet this priest, months later in his hometown with the beautifully fitting name “Jesus Maria” and I complement him on his perfect Spanish, all I get is an astonished look. Father Gabriel was born and raised in Mexico. Oh well…
Father Gabriel serves espresso while we talk about the possibility of organizing a concert, or even a string of concerts at all the missions of Baja California. Since 2005 I have visited Bahia de Los Angeles numerous times and have met so many wonderful and interesting people. Every time we go back people ask us about the concert at San Borja and when it will be happening. A lot of times they are people I have never met before. The rumor has spread and the rest is history.

The Concert that lead to Musica Sacra
After many months of planning and preparation, a concert took place on Sunday, March 18th, 2007. Sung in Latin, Spanish, German and English, the music was composed both in the Old and New World. For this benefit concert, the mission was filled with people from all over Baja California and the US, and all donations went toward the restoration of the beautiful mission of San Borja. The idea for this concert was to bring music to places of beauty and inspiration, and resulted in the recording of Musica Sacra.

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Monday, December 12, 2011

mercedes sosa, the voice of the voiceless ones

Born in Miguel de Tucumán (Argentina), Mercedes Sosa (1935-2009) was best known as the "voice of the voiceless ones" and lovingly referred to as "la negra".  Sosa's signature song became Gracias a la Vida, which she recorded in 1971 as a tribute to Chilean poet Violeta Parra. A supporter of Perón in her youth, she favored leftist causes throughout her life. Sosa was a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Latin America and the Caribbean.

It was in 1987, when I studied in Argentina, that I first heard of Mercedes Sosa who, after years of having been in exile in Paris and Madrid, had finally returned to her home country. Argentina had only been a democracy for a few years. Upon her return in 1983, Mercedes gave a series of concerts at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. A double album of recordings from these performances Mercedes Sosa en Argentina (en vivo) became an instant best seller.

I remember Mercedes Sosa for her interpretation of "Los Mareados" at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam (the Netherlands) where I attended a concert by her. For this song, Mercedes decided to open standing with her back to the audience. Her first notes must have taken the sound engineer by surprise because the speakers all of a sudden blew out with a terrible noise. The manager of Sosa's tour was a good friend of mine, and after the concert he introduced me to this wonderful singer. I met Mercedes only briefly, but I'll never forget the way she tirelessly and humbly interacted with her fans. Mercedes Sosa and first husband Manuel Óscar Matus were key players in the mid-60s Nueva Canción Movement.

Nueva Canción Movement
The new song movement of Latin America saw its beginnings in Cuba's revolutionary nueva trova movement in the early 1960s as artists began to reflect the ideology of anti-imperialism. As life in Cuba changed, events in South America lead to the birth of nueva canción in Chile and Argentina, where musicians sang about the injustice and oppression in their homeland as well as the plight of the exploited indigenous populations. By the 1970s, many saw this music as a platform for protest, and the musicians would suffer the consequences of rising up against the imposed dictatorial regimes.

In Chile, the movement began in the 1960s with artists such as Victor Jara and Violeta Parra, who began to draw attention to the plight of the indigenous populations of their country. The same occurred in Argentina, with pioneers such as Atahualpa Yupanqui and Mercedes Sosa blending ancient Andean musical traditions with socially conscious lyrics. Nueva Canción in many ways reflected the solidarity between Latin Americans from various countries, and offered cries for peace and social justice on a worldwide humanitarian level. Also, nueva canción echoed the anti-American sentiment resulting from the Vietnam War, and the genre became a suitable platform for expressing anti-imperialist views.

In a career consisting of four decades, Mercedes Sosa worked with performers across several genres and generations. To name a few; Nana MouskouriMaria FarantouriAndrea Bocelli,  Silvio RodríguezPablo Milanés, Milton NascimentoCaetano VelosoJoan Manuel SerratChico BuarqueGal CostaJoan BaezLuciano PavarottiMartha Argerich and Sting.

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

free christmas songs and e-card

This week I decided to bake a Yule Log cake with my San Diego friend Tricia Kaye - a virtual one that is, since we live some 3,500 miles apart! We have made our cake into a free ecard - it features my recording of Noel, part of a new collection of christmas songs I am working on.

I had not heard of the yule log until this week, when Tricia introduced me to it. Also known as Bûche de Noël, the cake originates in France. I am now fascinated with it, and keen to bake my own. I am collecting recipes on facebook - please contribute your favorites!

more christmas songs at

Yule Log Cake, a bit of history
Bûche de Noël (Yule Log) is one of many traditional cakes baked at Christmas. As the name suggests, it is of French origin. The cake is popular in in France, Belgium, Canada, Lebanon, Vietnam, and several other former French colonies, as well as in parts of the US. The name of this recipe literally translates as "Christmas log," referring to the traditional Yule log burned centuries past. The ingredients suggest the cake is most likely a 19th century creation. That's when thinly rolled sponge cakes filled with jam or cream and covered with buttercream icing begin to show up in European cook books. Marzipan and meringue, typically employed for decorative purposes, date to the Medieval Ages and the 17th century respectively.

1/4 cup (50 grams) plus 2 tablespoons (28 grams) granulated white sugar
6 large eggs, separated
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 ounces (112 grams) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
3/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

Chocolate Whipped Cream:
1 cup (240 ml) heavy whipping cream (contains 35-40% butterfat)
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 tablespoon (40 grams) granulated white sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

Garnish: (optional)
Meringue Mushrooms

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C) and place the oven rack in the center of the oven. Butter, or spray with a non stick vegetable spray, a 17 x 12 inch (43x30 cm) baking pan. Line the pan with parchment paper and then butter and flour the parchment paper.

While the eggs are still cold, separate the eggs, placing the whites in one bowl and the yolks in another. Cover and bring to room temperature before using (about 30 minutes). Meanwhile melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl placed over a saucepan of simmering water. Remove from heat and cool.

In the bowl of your electric mixer (or with a hand mixer) place the egg yolks and 1/4 cup of sugar and beat until light and fluffy (about five minutes). (When you slowly raise the beaters, the batter will fall back into the bowl in a slow ribbon.) Beat in the vanilla extract. Scrape down sides of bowl. Add the melted chocolate and beat only to combine.

In a clean mixing bowl, with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites until foamy. Add the cream of tartar and beat at medium-high speed until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar until stiff peaks form.

Gently fold a small amount of the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture using a rubber spatula or whisk. Fold in the remaining whites just until incorporated. Don't over mix or the batter will deflate. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan. Bake until the cake is puffed, has lost its shine, and springs back when gently pressed, about 15-17 minutes. Remove from oven and place on wire rack to cool. Cover the cake with a clean, slightly damp towel.

Chocolate Whipped Cream: In a large mixing bowl place the whipping cream, vanilla extract, sugar, and cocoa powder and stir to combine. Cover and chill the bowl and beaters in the refrigerator for at least one hour so the cocoa powder has time to dissolve. Beat the mixture until stiff peaks form. Once the cake has cooled, spread with the cream (set 2 tablespoons aside) and then gently roll the cake, peeling off the parchment paper as you roll (the cake may crack). Trim one end of the cake at an angle and set it aside. Then place the cake, seam side down, on your serving platter. Take the slice of reserved cake and, using the reserved whipped cream, attach it to the side of the cake. Cover and chill until serving time. Just before serving remove cake from fridge, dust with confectioners sugar and decorate with mushrooms.
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