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According to University of Arizona ethnomusicology professor Janet Sturman, there's a whole body of colonial Latin-American choral music that has rarely reached modern ears. Now, these ears have a chance to be enlightened at a two-day international symposium titled "Latin American Choral Music: Contemporary Performance and the Colonial Legacy," starting at the university on Friday, Jan. 19. Talks on the modern translation of this music will be interwoven with live performances. The symposium with culminate in a choral performance at the grand opening of a period art exhibit to be housed at the Tucson Museum of Art at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 20. For more information or to register, visit the symposium site online.

How'd this symposium come about?

Our choral conductor, Bruce Chamberlain, called me up over the summer and said that he had been invited to do a performance for the Thoma Collection, the opening of this beautiful collection of paintings (including some) from a cathedral in Lima, Peru. He thought that it would be nice if he could find a choral work that was originally premiered in that cathedral. So we went hunting and found evidence of ... a work by composer Roque de Ceruti, an Italian who worked at the cathedral. ... What he didn't know was that it was still largely in manuscript form; nobody had ever really put it into modern notation for performance parts to give out to a choir and so on. He wanted to know a little bit more about this composer and more about the work, so he called me up, and I said, "Well, you know, the interesting thing is that this is a really rich area for research in Latin American music scholarship." There are all these fabulous compositions that were created in the cathedrals, and even in some of the missions. ... They have never been distributed in any way, never been published. They always remained works that were hand-written, quickly prepared for that week's performance and then shoved in an archive.

Out of sight.

Yes. ... There are all kinds of things that need to be done now for a modern set of performers. I said to him, "You know, this is the kind of thing that I think our students could be doing." We thought we would just collaborate. Then we talked to the director about it; he said, "I think we should host a symposium and bring scholars who are working on this." Well, this was very short notice. (Laughs.)

And everything seemed to fall into place.

We got quite a good response for such short notice. I mean, the abstracts for presentations had to be in by November. And then we had to pull something together, and here it is in January. Really, I'm very happy: We have 17 presenters, coming from all over the country. ... And they're representing Brazilian Portuguese-language compositions, as well as Spanish and Latin. At the very last minute, we have a woman coming in who's one of the foremost authorities on restoring the pipe organs in these cathedrals. She's going to talk about how that work is essential to making available the resources that were supporting these choirs and this kind of music. ... There's, of course, always been instrumental music associated with the performance of these works, and if you were to come to the museum concert, you'd hear the little orchestra that's with the full group, the 40-piece choir.

Can you tell me a bit about the two keynote speakers?

Yes. Craig Russell is a really fascinating person who has done work on baroque guitar literature, and he also has worked with choral music in Mexico. ... He's a composer and a musicologist with very broad interests: He's working on a book on Bob Dylan, so he's a well-rounded scholar! ... It's wonderful to have him here; he teaches at the California Polytechnic Institute. ... And then (Professor) Aurelio Tello is a superstar; we are so lucky to get him to speak. ... He was so gracious, and he said he would be honored to come. Now, this is a man who has published 10 books; he has a research position at the Centro Nacional de Investigación, Documentación y Información Musical in Mexico City. ... He's published hundreds of articles; I mean, he's really a serious, wonderful scholar, composer, conductor and musicologist.

What would someone who knows nothing about this type of music take away from the symposium?

Well, what they would likely discover is that there's a body of really beautiful, polyphonic music that would remind them of Handel or Vivaldi or their favorite baroque composers, but in Spanish and not known. It's just a treasure trove of untapped material.

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