restricted access 10. The Founding of the Orfeón Lamas, and Plaza’s Creative Response (1927–1963)
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10 The Founding of the Orfeón Lamas, and Plaza’s Creative Response (1927–1963) The Orfeón Lamas was Venezuela’s first organized, stable choral society for mixed voices. Named after José Angel Lamas, a beloved Venezuelan colonial composer, it was created by Plaza and others to perform nationalist secular a cappella music by living Venezuelans. The celebrated chorale burst onto the scene to great acclaim, remained active for three decades, and sparked a thriving a cappella choral movement that continues to flourish today. Plaza’s earliest contribution to the genesis of this ensemble was the stimulus he provided to composition in the a cappella style. That process began shortly before Holy Week of 1924, during his first year at the cathedral . One of his mandates as chapel master was to reform liturgical music practices according to church legislation, which forbade instruments during Holy Week services. As new chapel master, therefore, Plaza insisted on the practice of a cappella singing during Holy Week. This novelty stimulated him, as well as Vicente Emilio Sojo—a member of the musical chapel —and Miguel Angel Calcaño, one of the cathedral organists, to compose a cappella motets, responsories, and so forth to be performed during this season of the liturgical year. They wrote for male voices, since women were not permitted in the cathedral music establishment. Therefore by the late 1920s, when conditions in Caracas became propitious for the cultiva- tion of secular a cappella music, a small group of composers was already experienced in writing unaccompanied vocal polyphony. Coincidentally, 1924—the year of Plaza’s first Holy Week at the cathedral —saw another development that prepared the way for the Orfeón Lamas. That year a group of young men left Caracas to take part in pilgrimage observances in the coastal town of Maiquetía. The high energy level of the pilgrims inspired them to compose humorous vocal canons, which they sang for their own amusement. Although they did not realize it at the time, those boisterous canons were an important step toward the serious cultivation of secular choral composition in their country. José Antonio Calcaño, one of the founders of the Orfeón Lamas, describes the rambunctious activities of the pilgrims and the vocal canons they inspired: There were twelve or fourteen of us. We were no more than youths at the time . . . just barely adults, with the exception of Sojo, who is somewhat older than us but who makes up for it with the eternal youth of his mentality. We were lodging in a house . . . in which we were the only occupants at the time. . . . The bedrooms of the house were very spacious, and each one had up to four or five cots. It goes without saying, and the readers are already imagining, the rumpus that was raised there at night, at bedtime. . . . In order to cause a constant stir it occurred to us to compose a little musical piece whose technical name is “infinite canon,” which has the peculiarity of never ending. . . . Well then: it was Miguel Angel Calcaño who composed this first canon, to which I set a text; a joking text, suitable for the circumstances, but which it is not possible for me to reproduce here because it is a little “non sancta.” Now armed with our “infinite canon” (which was only in two parts), we opened fire at nightfall , and it was fabulous... . . . In subsequent years we returned to pilgrimage; we also went to other towns during the patron saints’ feast days, and those little tours were as many other stages that contributed to the creation of the orfeón—which in truth we still weren’t thinking about, because at the time we believed it to be an impractical project among us. Suffice it to say that years later, around 1927, we had already composed, for pure fun, a good number of infinite canons.1 With their repertory of canons in hand, it was time for the young men to take them “on the road”: That year [1927] our joking canons, climbing up a rung in the ladder, “moved” from the neighboring towns to the streets of Caracas owing to the simple circumstance that Miguel Angel Calcaño acquired an automobile at that time. In this auto we would go out sometimes at night, three or four musicians, and in it began to sing our infinite canons, to which were added one composed by Juan Bautista Plaza...


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