Florilegium's Bolivian Baroque - the story so far
The Jesuit missionaries arrived in Bolivia in the 1670s with the aim at converting the local population to Christianity. Amongst other things, they founded ten Jesuit missions, deep in the Bolivian jungle. Here they found an indigenous people who were keen to learn, and make music. Each mission collected music for its worship, including masses and motets as well as instrumental and keyboard compositions. The largest manuscript collection, in Concepcion, had 5,500 manuscripts. In 1767 the Jesuits were expelled from Bolivia and over the following years the missions closed and their music libraries became ‘time capsules’ of 17th-18th century music. Some of this music was written in (and brought from) Europe, but mainly it comprised anonymous compositions, written by the local peoples.
In the 1990s a Polish priest, Father Piotr Nawrot, chose Music from the Jesuit Missions for his doctorate, and gradually earned the trust of the local ‘Elders’ who began showing him these hidden treasures. He started to reconstruct the manuscripts and searched ways of bringing this music to life.
For Florilegium it all started in 2001 when they were contacted by Fr Piotr Nawrot following a London performance he attended. Fr Nawrot is the Artistic Director of the International Festival of Renaissance and Baroque Music in Bolivia and he invited Florilegium to participate in this biennial music festival held in the mission churches in the Bolivian jungle in April 2002. The condition of participation in this festival was that 5-10 minutes of Bolivian Baroque music had to be included in the ensemble’s programme. As the first English group to perform in this Festival, Florilegium were amazed by the reception they received from the local audiences, who were almost exclusively indigenous Indians. They were enthusiastic at hearing an English ensemble performing not just European baroque music but also Mission Baroque, music from their Chiquitos and Moxos archives.
Following this unique experience, members of Florilegium were keen to pursue this repertoire further and Ashley told Piotr that he would promote an entire programme of Bolivian baroque music at London’s Wigmore Hall the following year. The four soloists joining Florilegium for this production of sacred and secular works from the archives in Bolivia included Emma Kirkby. Over the following weeks, Ashley received around 60kg of music from Piotr from which he could select a programme for London.
The London concert took place on 19 March 2003. The hall was full, and Ashley was informed that they could have sold the concert for two consecutive nights. This could not therefore be the culmination of the project.
Following the performance Ashley met with the Director of the Dutch Prince Claus Fund who had attended the Wigmore Hall concert and who was very keen to support this initiative. However, there needed to be a stronger Bolivian involvement in this project and they discussed the possibility of replacing the English singers with four Bolivian soloists for future projects.
So in December 2003, thanks to sponsorship from the Prince Claus Fund, Ashley was able to go to Bolivia. There he auditioned over 40 young Bolivian singers (only a handful of whom had received formal singing lessons) and selected four of them to appear with Florilegium in the festival in April 2004.
With continued sponsorship, Ashley commuted each month to Bolivia to
work with these four and he also arranged professional lessons in baroque
singing for the two leading singers, who were unfamiliar with this style.
The principal soprano, Katia Escalera came to London to work with Emma
Kirkby and the South American music specialist Jennifer Smith, while Henry
Villca (tenor) went to Chile to study with Rodrigo del Pozo. The other
two soloists were Alexandra Wayar, soprano and Gian-Carla Tisera who would
sing mezzo, though her vocal range embraced mezzo and soprano.
By now, Ashley had also discussed this project with Jared Sacks, the record producer and head of Channel Classics, Florilegium’s record company. Jared, too, was fascinated and agreed to accompany Florilegium into the jungle to make a commercial recording of this music.
Bolivian Baroque Vol.1
In April 2004, seven members of Florilegium with their instruments, and Jared Sacks and 300kg of recording equipment arrived in Bolivia. They were based in the beautifully restored 1707 cathedral in Concepcion, some six hours drive from Santa Cruz and deep in the Bolivian jungle. Accompanying Jared was his son, Jonas, who was to produce a DVD telling the story of this remarkable project.
The group were given full access to this church, and, in order to work around the outside noise (ranging from beautiful birdsong to the roar of local scooters) as well as the searing heat, recording took place into the night.
The resulting CD (which was sold as a set with Jonas’s DVD) was enthusiastically received (and selected as Editor’s Choice in Gramophone magazine).
This new recording was launched at a performance in Amsterdam’s famous Concertgebouw concert hall in front of a capacity audience of 2,200 people. The First Lady of Bolivia travelled to Holland for this launch and the four soloists who had never performed outside of Bolivia gave a critically acclaimed performance with Florilegium.
By now, Piotr Nawrot had done further research into the 11,000 manuscript
pages from the three main missions to which he had gained access. He had
found many new works, including numerous choral works which he agreed
to give Ashley and so the next stage of this project began, with the formation
For this project, in addition to hearing eight established chamber choirs from around the country Ashley auditioned over 50 singers, who came from different cities and backgrounds all over Bolivia. From these auditions he selected a mixed choir of 14 voices and in December 2005, the Arakaendar Bolivia Choir was founded.
Established to work exclusively with Florilegium on their Bolivian Baroque projects, Ashley commuted each month from London to Bolivia (thanks to the ongoing, generous support of the Prince Claus Fund and Association Pro Art y Culture (APAC) in Bolivia) to work with the choir for an intensive week at a time.
Just four months later, this new national chamber choir was launched
at the 6th International Festival of Renaissance and Baroque music in
Once again, in April 2006, Ashley, Florilegium, Jared and his equipment travelled to Concepcion to prepare for the festival and a second volume of Bolivian baroque music to showcase this new choir. Filming their progress this time was the American CBS '60 Minutes' programme, whose resulting documentary was aired nationwide across the USA on Easter Sunday 2007. Click here to see the documentary (via CBS website).
Volume 2 was equally enthusiastically received, again selected as Editor’s Choice in Gramophone magazine and was nominated for a 2008 BBC Music Magazine Award in the ‘Best Choral Recording of 2007’ category.
The Arakaendar Bolivia Choir was a great success, and Ashley directed them in three national tours in Bolivia in 2007.
In February 2008 (again with thanks to their generous sponsors, including De Doelen, Rotterdam) the Choir came to Europe. Fresh from the steaming jungle of a Bolivian summer, they arrived in The Netherlands, where the Arctic wind blows fiercely in winter. It was quite a shock. Most of these young people had never been outside Bolivia before. Once in The Netherlands the choir met up with Florilegium – who arrived straight from a Bolivian Baroque concert tour in Spain with the original four Bolivian soloists from the first project. The Dutch tour was enthusiastically received, with the CBS documentary being aired several times a day on national television.
The Choir could not be that close to the UK without having a performance here. Professor Colin Lawson, Director of the Royal College of Music, agreed to invite them to give a concert. Ashley, as Head of Historical Performance at the RCM, brought Florilegium (soon to be Ensemble in Association at the RCM) and the Arakaendar Bolivia Choir to London for a sold-out concert. After a brief rehearsal at the RCM, Ashley took the choir to BBC Broadcasting House where they performed some Bolivian baroque music live on air to the BBC Radio 3 In Tune audience.
During this Dutch tour in February 2008, the Bolivian Baroque Vol.3 CDs was recorded, in the lovely Waalse Kerk in Amsterdam.
However, in order to have some Bolivian music specifically recorded in Bolivia on this third volume James Johnstone (the group’s keyboard player) with Ashley travelled to the remote mission church in Santa Ana in May 2008. Here James recorded on the only surviving 18th century organ in the Missions.
Volume 3 therefore comprised choral works, these organ solos and a few instrumental works, and was released in January 2010. BBC Music Magazine (the world’s largest selling classical music magazine) selected it as Disc of the Month in April 2010.
Hans Roth was the Swiss architect largely responsible for the restoration or reconstruction of the mission churches and a major figure in Bolivian cultural life in the early 20th century. Each year APAC (Association Pro Art y Culture) make an award in his honour, with the award ceremony televised live across the country. In 2008 Ashley became the first European to be awarded this prestigious Hans Roth Prize in recognition of the enormous assistance he has given to the Bolivian native Indians, including the promotion and preservation of their music.
To end Florilegium’s 20th anniversary season, Ashley undertook
an ambitious major tour of the UK (with
Florilegium) and Spain (a capella) for Arakaendar Bolivia Choir. The tour
went all over the UK; starting in London (Spitalfields Festival), they
travelled to Orkney (Florilegium and the choir gave two concerts at St
Magnus Festival, with the choir alone performing on a ferry, at the Festival
club and the Festival service), then back to Dorset (Beaminster Festival).
Following several days in Spain, the choir rejoined Florilegium and gave
two concerts at the York Early Music Festival (one of which was recorded
for BBC Radio 3’s Early Music Show) and Cheltenham Festival of Music.
Finally back to London where the choir (without Florilegium) performed
again at the Royal College of Music and sang live of BBC Radio 3’s
In Tune. Writing about one of the performances in York, the reviewer for
The Guardian wrote ““the Arakaendars have developed in little
over five years into one of the most remarkable choirs in the world”.
Florilegium have made many tours, in the UK and overseas performing Bolivian Baroque with huge success wherever they go. Performances include many trips to Spain, several to The Netherlands (including the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam) and Austria (including Wiener Konzerthaus and Trigonale Festival), to France, to Germany in the restored Frauenkirche in Dresden, Switzerland, Istanbul and Miami. In 2010 Florilegium’s Bolivian Baroque was the first early music concert to be held in Singapore and later that year that concert was repeated in the group’s debut at the Edinburgh International Festival.
With all this performing and recording came fundraising. The original London concert (and associated UK performances) raised £10,000 to buy instruments for children in Bolivia.
Over the years, Ashley has been obtaining grants to buy baroque instruments and has taken a number of them out to Bolivia.
Over the last few years, he has also been training Bolivian instrumentalists in baroque performance. In the 2010 festival local musicians joined the choir, and just two Florilegium players (Bojan Cicic, principal violin and Jennifer Morsches, cello) in performance. Jennifer playing the baroque cello which Ashley had bought for his Bolivian players.
Bolivian Baroque Vol 1- Music from the Missions
of Chiquitos and Moxos Indians
Bolivian Baroque Vol.1
This early promise is wonderfully fulfilled in what is the most adventurous release I’ve reviewed so far this year … I’m still bowled over by it all and full of enthusiasm for such tremendous enterprise and imagination… The results of this European-Bolivian collaboration are by turns uplifting and moving. (International Record Review)
A magical voyage of discovery (Sydney Morning Herald)
The playing from Florilegium is as stylish as always… A fascinating and worthwhile project indeed. (Gramophone, July 2005)
Bolivian Baroque vol.2
Florilegium are typically excellent in several instrumental solos …This
disc is packed with obscure treasures that amply reward the listener
Florilegium at its lithe, incisive best … this "mission statement" is a must. Spread the word! (BBC Music Magazine, January 2007)
Overall this is a really remarkable musical ‘fair-trade’ product. It is what international music-making should be all about and this is a particularly heart-warming example of it. Wholeheartedly recommended. (International Record Review)
Florilegium’s playing is beautiful, as one would expect from one of Europe’s leading period bands (Early Music Review, December 2006)
Bolivian Baroque Vol.3
Florilegium’s performances are terrific and do much to make this
series a fine addition to this genre.
Back to Bolivia for a collection that’s more entertaining and engaging
than ever. Florilegium plays some chamber instrumental work with customary
finesse… There isn’t a dull moment during the disc’s
hour-long duration, and plenty of musical subtleties and novelties to
intrigue the ear.
If you’re looking for music to restore your faith in what’s
good in life, look no farther. Florilegium’s pioneering Bolivian
Baroque series contains some of the most delightful music I’ve heard
in many a year... the directness of their approach, and the purity of
their sound, transmits a youthful freshness that never fails to captivate.
All forces here are equally attuned to the spirit of the music…
Heartily recommended as a nice change of pace to any baroque collection
of sacred—and sometimes borderline sacred—music.
played here with flute and violin sharing the upper parts, the light,
melodious charm of the [instrumental items] is beautifully released. The
Arakaendar Bolivia Choir is faultlessly neat and crisp, rhythmically very
regular, but dramatically irrepressible… Enriching and uplifting.
There was something about this concert that evokes that other ‘new’
world populated for the most part at the time by Amerindians. It could
be the way that the musicians played this music culled from important
missionary collections with extraordinary attention to subtle interplay,
quiet dynamics and fine timbres.
Their encore, an arrangement of a Bolivian folksong and variations, drew
a standing ovation. This breath of fresh air deserved nothing less.
But the overall sound, accompanied here by Solomon's Baroque-instrument
group Florilegium, is enchanting. These are gossamer light and radiantly
clear voices, singing with delicacy, a wonderfully springy sense of rhythm
and true joy.