When European explorers first encountered the New World we now think of as the West, they thought they had discovered a new passage to the East. They also met the indigenous people of America and their cultures. This cultural fusion during periods of colonization has been a year-long theme for Piffaro, Philadelphia’s Renaissance wind band. That season wraps up this weekend with “West Becomes East.”
The inspiration came in 2010, when Piffaro participated in the International Renaissance and Baroque Music Festival in Bolivia. Drawn to the fusion of cultures at the festival, the ensemble decided to develop a theme that paid homage to the trip. The group picked a time in Central and South America’s history when cultural interaction reached a new high: the period of early colonization from the 16th to the 18th centuries. A philosophical look at the perceptions colonizers and explorers had of the New World led to the concept of a “West Becomes East” concert, to fit within the larger seasonal theme of cultural interaction during times of colonization.
“The thought came to us that the notions of West and East become altered in this interaction,” said Piffaro’s artistic director Bob Weimkin. “The Spanish and Portuguese explorers sailed off in search of a route to the East and discovered the new West and in turn then became a new East. We thought this could define the season and provide a backdrop for approaching and defining the subsequent interaction of cultures, especially as the music was concerned.”
The new material has been a comfortable fit for the ensemble. “The interesting thing about the music of the New World, at least insofar as the preserved, composed music available to us is concerned, is that it is nearly identical to that of the Old,” said Weimkin. “The differences are more a matter of degree than of radical transformation or individuality.”
Piffaro only uses reconstructed period instruments. For “West Becomes East,” they will use a variety of instruments common to the 16th to 18th centuries, such as double-reeded shawms and dulcians, which are early forms of oboes and bassoons, and the sackbuts, an early trombone.
The focus on geographical regions that are, today, primarily Spanish-speaking has allowed Piffaro to reach out to Philadelphia’s Spanish-speaking community. Artistic co-director Joan Kimball and teaching artist Natalie Hoyer have been working with second and third graders in an after-school program at Norris Square Neighborhood Project in North Philadelphia. After teaching students songs from South America, the students have been able to join the music themselves by accompanying with percussion and some of Piffaro’s wind instruments. Kimball is also working at an after-school program at the Philadelphia School, an independent school in Center City, teaching students to play South American music on their recorders. Students have been invited to hear the music they’ve been learning performed by professionals at Piffaro’s open dress rehearsal at the Church of the Advent in Kennett Square.
Piffaro has a history of education outreach; they perform for local schools each year. The ensemble recently won a Lifetime Achievement Award for Education and Outreach from Early Music America, a national organization that supports historical music performance.
“West Becomes East” is supported by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage through the Philadelphia Music Project. Before each “West Becomes East” concert, audiences will have the chance to hear both members of Piffaro, as well as local children, discuss Piffaro’s involvement with the local Spanish-speaking community.
“West Becomes East,” 8 p.m. Friday, Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, 3723 Chestnut St.; 8 p.m. Saturday,
Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 8855 Germantown Ave.; 4 p.m. Sunday,
Sts. Andrew & Matthew Church, 719 N. Shipley Street, Wilmington, Del., $15-$40
Art Attack is a partnership with Drexel University and is supported by a grant from the Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge, administered by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.