On Saturday, July 30, the Universalist Unitarian Church of Santa Paula will play host to a classical music concert that’s unique in its early European repertoire. The program for “Alas and Olé” includes folk tunes and lute solos from the 16th and 17th centuries, performed by instrumentalist Stuart Fox and soprano Mary Rawcliffe. If you like a little history with your music, this is the place to be.
“Middle Ages and Renaissance music basically used a seven-note scale,” explains Fox, a renowned lutenist, professor at CalArts and specialist in early music and traditional instruments. “We are so used to the complexity of our modern music. . . . In the Middle Ages things were more simple.”
Simple, but no less entrancing. From Spanish vihuela tunes to the polyphonic compositions of Luis de Narváez to the lamentations of the Italian monody and John Dowland’s Elizabethan pieces, the music of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance is expressive, melodic and varied, sometimes melancholic, other times joyful and festive — hence the title “Alas and Olé.” Playing on the lute helps bring this time in musical history to life as well. “If you play on the original instruments, you can get an idea of what kind of sounds they made in the court of Phillip II of Spain or Elizabeth I of England.”
Choral pieces will be sung by Rawcliffe, herself a specialist in historical vocal technique who has performed worldwide. She and Fox share a long history. “We have been playing together for over 40 years,” says Fox, who first met Rawcliffe in the 1970s when both were working on an opera.
While medieval, Renaissance and even some Baroque works make up the first half of the program, the second half moves to more modern compositions. From the 20th century come John Duarte’s “Five Quiet Songs” and a series of Spanish folk songs based on the poetry of Federico García Lorca. The most recent work is a lute solo by Wadada Leo Smith composed specifically for Fox a few years ago.
The Universalist Unitarian Church is no stranger to musical events, particularly of the more eclectic variety. The historical building has hosted numerous concerts over its 100+ year history, and just this past year has welcomed the Rowan Brothers, Chucumite and Northern Indian classical musicians Will Marsh and Leonice Shinneman. Credit for such quality musical programming goes to the Rev. Maddie Sifantus, who came to the church in January 2015.
“Music has always been a part of my life,” says Sifantus. “I was a professional singer before I went into the ministry.” Born and raised in eastern Massachusetts, Sifantus at one time ran a nonprofit elder chorus and started a concert series at her previous church. “I really believe in being able to present quality music to the community, and provide opportunities for local talent to perform.”
She also aims to bring something original to the area, giving local audiences a taste of something they might not otherwise have the occasion to explore. “I’m trying to have a balance between classical, world and other kinds of music,” Sifantus notes, adding that she’d like to add jazz and singer-songwriters to the mix.
“Alas and Olé” offers some history for the eyes as well as the ears: The venue is a Ventura County Historical Landmark. Built in 1892 in the Richardson Romanesque style (named for architect Henry Richardson), the church features rounded arched windows and openings, a square bell tower and steeped roof with distinctive gables. Only a handful of buildings were built in this style in Southern California; the church is one of just a few that remain today.
Beautiful wood paneling and stained glass windows are found throughout, and the acoustics make for a wonderful listening experience. Fox notes that the timing of the concert was set to take full advantage of the church’s splendors. “We’re doing the concert at 4 p.m. because the light coming in from the stained glass windows is so beautiful at that time of day.”
“It’s all music we love very much. It’s just gorgeous,” Fox adds. “And the setting is very beautiful.” Glorious music, an exceedingly lovely venue . . . what more could concertgoers ask for?
Stuart Fox and Mary Rawcliffe perform “Alas and Olé” on Saturday, July 30, at 4 p.m. at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Santa Paula, 740 E. Main St. For tickets and more information call 525-4647 or email email@example.com.