Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Garden of Song: Boston Camerata Crosses 'The Sacred Bridge'

            It's Passover on Friday, and Easter on Sunday. A perfect time to hear the Boston Camerata's "The Sacred Bridge" concert program.
            Many of the works in this program, originally created back in 1982 and performed last Sunday in Cambridge, were produced "by religious minorities within Christian Europe," the Camerata tells us in the program notes. "Yet Jews, Muslims and Christians, though separated and in frequent conflict, were in many ways dependent on each other."
            The concert highlights a lot of musical borrowing along with the communities' shared monotheistic tradition, with its common cultural motifs, characters, and stories to celebrate in song. We hear examples of commonality throughout the program. Jewish worship services gave to the Early Christina church ancient melodies. The sound of Hebrew Psalm recitations survive in Gregorian chant. A Christian wrote down the oldest surviving example of written Jewish music, "The Eulogy of Moses," composed by a monk from the Mediterranean world of Italy and Egypt who converted to Judaism and took the name Obadiah. Jewish minstrels wandered through medieval Europe, among them the outspoken "Matthieu le Juif," who ends a complaint of unrequited love with a curse on a false mistress, asking God to make her so wrinkled that only he will love her. Another, minnesinger (German minstrel) Sueskint, decides to return in old age to "the Old Jewry with long coat and hat."
            Another strand in this rousing and astonishingly rich music are the texts and songs that refer back to Abraham, the patriarch of all three faiths -- that common root whose existence often surprises people today in our divided world. In one tune from a Bosnian folk tradition, a Sephardic community rejoices in the appearance of a star over Abraham's birthplace, an example of popular syncretism (the amalgamation of elements from different cultures). The tune in this Jewish song with a Christian epiphany comes from a traditional Arabic/Ottoman musical mode called hejaz-al-kabir.
            The concert begins with solo voices, then a solo instrument, and builds into lively, soulful, percussive jams involving all the singers and a half dozen instruments.
            The first offering, a verse from The Koran, is chanted by a Moroccan singer with a stirring purity resembling "The Call to Prayer." The words say "We narrate unto thee the story of Moses and the Pharoah." Another setting of verses from the Koran tells of Moses' vision of "Allah" in the burning bush. Two settings of Psalm 114 ("When Israel came forth out of Egypt"...) are sung in Hebrew and Latin.
            "Stories of Abraham," were told in songs from the Koran, from an 18th century Jewish source, from a 13th century German composition, and by a Sephardic community in the Balkans.
            The second half of the concert was devoted to the music of medieval Spain or Andalusia (Moorish Spain), especially the Christina court of Alfonso the Wise where all three communities participated in a relative paradise of tolerance, learning and the arts.
            The Boston Camerata has authored scores of programs since the seventies, but "The Sacred Bridge" is the one most often requested. 
             Last week's participants include current artistic director Anne Azema, a dramatic soprano with a timeless voice, music director emeritus Joe Cohen, who sings and plays the lute, Shira Kammen on the vielle (an early violin with a bow that looks like you could fire an arrow from it), Jesse Lepkoff on flute; truly amazing percussionist Karim Nagi (director of the Sharq Arabic Music Ensemble) who makes a tambourine sound like a full percussion ensemble all by itself, Boujemaa Razgui who chanted the Koranic verses, and Mehmet Sanlikol, both a wonderful singer and lute player.