In the parlor of the Spanish Governor’s Palace downtown, an archaic Galician harp stands on a table near the corner fireplace. A wall placard reads: “Families who lived on the frontier of New Spain had to provide their own entertainment.”
The Agarita chamber music ensemble brought this history to life by recording their latest concert program inside the palace, with a program of music inspired by Spain to be presented as a free virtual concert March 26 at 7:30 p.m.
“There’s so much history and so much culture in that building and that part of our city, that it really informed the programming and how we got to play it,” said violinist Sarah Silver Manzke.
Music in the program matches or predates the age of the harp, ranging from a sonata by 18th-century cellist and composer Luigi Boccherini to a piece written early on during a pandemic lockdown in New York City.
The program “pulls you into the past and brings you into the future. It bridges or transcends time,” said Colleen Swain director of the City of San Antonio World Heritage Office, which sponsored the program and gave access to the palace.
“We really tried to run the gamut of what Spanish-inspired music is,” said violist Marisa Bushman.
Other composers in the program are Isaac Albéniz, represented by a piece for solo piano; Jesus Garcia Leoz; Xavier Montsalvage with a trio of playful Cuban songs; and Andrea Casarrubios, who wrote the string trio … in the age of noise to honor her own experience as an artist living alone during the pandemic.
The title is a play on the major concept of the three-minute piece, which incorporates silence as a main element. According to Bushman, Casarrubios has described the piece as about breath, which a musician might focus on as an accompaniment when playing alone.
“It’s a very still, contemplative piece,” she said, that crescendos toward a full sound, then “goes back to the silences and stillness at the end.”
Bushman called the performance particularly appropriate for the situation, given that the concert was initially intended to be performed live in front of an in-person audience at the Mission Marquee Plaza.
“It’s very poignant and appropriate, not only to include because she’s a wonderful female Spanish composer, but [because of] us not being able to perform for an audience and have that breath and silence with them, bringing it almost in the truest form that it was created,” Bushman said.
While planning their spring concerts earlier in the year, San Antonio was experiencing a spike in coronavirus cases that necessitated a move to virtual programming. Working with the World Heritage Office, previous collaborators for a concert at Mission San Jose, arrangements were made to record the program in the historical palace.
Pressure was put on the one-day recording session by Manzke having to perform as concertmaster for the San Antonio Symphony that evening, a program that featured significant violin solos during the Shostakovich Eighth String Quartet. Working as an ensemble, the four Agarita members balanced the need for speed with the desire to record subtle and moving performances.
“There’s something to be said for a deadline,” Manzke said. Moving to virtual concerts simply doesn’t feel the same as playing live for both audience and performers, yet they are still “trying to capture the essence of a live performance, without those pressures that make our adrenaline flow and make us really shine.”
Recording under pressure “created a real sense of urgency that, for me, mimicked that of a live performance.”
Bushman said their preference is always to play in front of live audiences, but for the moment they understand the necessity for caution. With safety in mind, however, Agarita has a busy schedule ahead.
The quartet’s Humble Hall mobile concert venue was designed to permit outreach to all 10 council districts of San Antonio while allowing for socially distanced, outdoor concerts.
On March 28, the group will hold two events. The first, at the Jefferson Bodega in District 7 at 1 p.m., will feature music by Bach, tango master Astor Piazzola, and local jazz pianist Aaron Prado. The second, at 5:30 p.m. in the San Antonio Housing Authority’s Beautify San Antonio Park at 801 S. Main St. in District 1, will reprise that program.
April 3, Agarita will participate in the heritage office’s Viva Poesia event celebrating National Poetry Month, which will be livestreamed at 7 p.m. from the Mission Marquee Plaza.
On May 1, the quartet will be joined by members of the Escher Quartet for a 7 p.m. concert to be held at the Burleson Warehouse, 221 Burleson Street. The audience will be limited to 50 people with social distancing in place, and the concert will be livestreamed.
All Agarita performances are free, part of the group’s mission to bring classical and contemporary classical music to as many people as possible. The pandemic will not stand in their way, Bushman said.
“We’re trying to make the best of a really hard situation,” she said. “Agarita has done everything that we can to keep our art form, and the other artists that we collaborate with, our voices being heard and people having something to reach out to that’s new.”