Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Oaxaca: The Tenth Historic Organ Festival

At the end of February 2014 your authors had the pleasure of attending the Tenth Historic Organ Festival in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.
In the past we have participated in several of these festivals, organized every two years or so by the Instituto de Órganos Históricos de Oaxaca (IOHIO) a wonderful organization that seeks to document and restore—whenever possible to playable condition—the numerous old colonial pipe organs, large and small, found in churches across the region.

During the 2014 festival we visited a number of unrestored organs and enjoyed several concerts on restored instruments, both in the city of Oaxaca as well as in smaller towns where the local community always extended us a warm welcome, often including special regional meals and even serenades by the village brass band!
Zautla: the brass band
The landmark Tenth Festival was officially recognized by the issuance of a set of new postage stamps illustrating six of the Oaxacan organs, together with the opening of a special exhibit of historic documents relating to the organs that was mounted in the impressive Burgoa Library of the Santo Domingo Priory and Cultural Center in Oaxaca city.

Organ concerts featuring prominent musicians from Europe, Mexico and the US were held in Oaxaca Cathedral and the great basilica of La Soledad in the city. Other concert locations across the region included the imposing colonial Dominican churches of Tlaxiaco, Tlacochahuaya, Tamazulapan and Yanhuitlan.

We begin our report with an account of the newly restored organ at the popular market town of Tlacolula, whose inauguration was the highlight of the festival.
The Tlacolula organ as restored (IOHIO)

As noted, the main event of the Tenth Historic Organ festival was the inauguration of the beautiful 18th century organ in ornate 16th century church of Santa María de la Asunción Tlacolula, a popular market town in the eastern Valley of Oaxaca.

This magnificent colonial pipe organ, accompanied by a pair of hand bellows, stands in the choir loft, accessible via narrow caracol stairway.  Documents in the church archives indicate that the organ was built in 1791 by the organ builder Manuel Neri y Carmona for $700 pesos, with an additional $200 pesos for the gilding. 

However, one of the tallest interior trumpet pipes is incised with the date “1666,” and stylized square crosses appear on several other interior pipes. Since the last Oaxacan organs with Dominican crosses incised on their pipes date from the 1740s, we can assume that the pipework of the Tlacolula organ was built before the case of 1791. Based on this, the Tlacolula organ may have the oldest complete pipe work of any organ in Oaxaca, which may have been first heard as far back as the 17th century.

The 1791 case of the organ was painted and gilded in an ornate baroque manner at a time when such decoration was going out of style. The finely rendered, expressive faces on the façade pipes are similarly out of historical context, in contrast to the ferocious masks typical of other organs of the period.

Restoration of this superb early organ is now complete. During the first phase of the project, the organ’s stunning red, black and gold case was restored together with the decorated façade pipes under the supervision of the Oaxacan restorer Eric González Castellanos.  The second phase, completed only weeks before the festival date, was the restoration of the organ interior itself, including the pipes, keyboards and mechanical components, directed by the Spanish organ builder Gerhard Grenzing.
The archbishop arrives at Tlacolula
The instrument was unveiled on February 23rd 2014 in a memorable presentation ceremony, in which we were present, under the auspices of IOHIO. This was followed by a dedicatory mass and blessing by the archbishop of Oaxaca, and a memorable inaugural concert with the Oaxaca City Chorus, soprano Lourdes Ambriz, and maestros Rafael Cardenas and Robert Fresco playing the organ, whose mellow sound filled the church for the first time in more than a century.

This event drew an overflow crowd of local townspeople and area visitors who filled the church as well as a large marquee set up in the church atrium. Colorful local dancers and musicians welcomed visitors that included numerous regional religious and civic dignitaries.

Support for this project came from the Tlacolula community and the Fundación Alfredo Harp Helú of Oaxaca (FAHHO) as well as several other organizations  and private subscribers.  And as a representative of the US group Los Amigos de Arte Popular (LADAP) I was privileged to present IOHIO with $1000 to assist in meeting the considerable restoration expenses.
 text © 2014 Richard D. Perry photography by Rosalind Perry and courtesy of IOHIO

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