All in all, this Boston Camerata concert featured fine musicianship, expertise in voice and every instrument, scholarly renditions of the scores and texts, and joyful music making.
The Sacred Bridge: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Medieval Europe. Performed by The Boston Camerata. At Longy School of Music, Cambridge, MA, Saturday, December 3.
By Anthony J. Palmer
The Sacred Bridge: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Medieval Europe was an extraordinary evening for many reasons. The bridge in the title suggests crossings, and indeed there were many: from one religion to another, from vocal to instrumental and back again, from sacred to secular, from West to East, and from superb to outstanding.
Assisting the Boston Camerata were three performers of the Sharq Arabic Ensemble on percussion, ney, oud, and voice, the ensemble expertly supplying the changing meters, rhythms, and unusual timbres of the Middle East. Crossing the instrumental bridge suggested many similarities: for example, an end-blown flute is a ney or a recorder; an oud is a multi-stringed lauta (lute). A drum is a drum when a stretched membrane is struck whatever its name. In fact, a good argument could be made that most instruments originated in the Middle East and underwent a transformation when they were adapted to new cultural and musical climates, making new modes and intonations possible.
The differences revealed themselves in other ways. While Anne Azéma, artistic director of Boston Camerata, sang with an obviously studied voice, Boujounmaa Razgui sang in a natural voice appropriate to chanting the Koran. In fact, in many Islamic countries chanting the Koran is not considered music. Razgui’s expertise on the oud, both notated and improvisational, was equaled by Joel Cohen’s on lauta. The exchanges were both musically interesting and illuminated the difficulties posed by the instruments.
The concert began with Jesse Lapkoff’s transverse flute on a chant-like melody, built out of short phrases, only to be answered by Azéma’s lilting, well-focused, mezzo voice from the balcony, a dramatic starting point. Immediately following was Cohen’s chant of Al naharot bavel, in my opinion the most iconic psalm (137) in the repertoire, ending with the text “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Cohen sang with his back to the audience. Did this represent the expulsion from Jerusalem and captivity in Babylon?
The Sacred Bridge—section II—was expressed in melodies that were shared by both Jewish chant and the Gregorian collections, as in B’tsect Yisrael and Inb exitu Israel (When Israel came forth out of Egypt . . . ). The artistic choice of having the two chants alternate with verses, one in Latin and one in Hebrew, convincingly revealed their common source. Alternation also occurred most effectively with Mi alhar horeb (Eulogy of Moses), between vocal and instrumental renditions. The performance of this piece was typical of the instrumental refrains embedded in many of the selections on the program. The vocal quality of the chants, songs, and various vocal renditions emphasized the natural voice, which was representative of the approach of much of the evening’s music. Bel canto was not the predominate feature of this concert, appropriately so, particularly in this last piece.
Cohen, director emeritus of Boston Camerata, is a first-class scholar, which does not in the least obscure his sense of humor. When he spoke during the concert, he balanced the knowledgeable with the humorously light-hearted. His story of Isaac Gorni (A poet’s life) was a monologue—translated from the Hebrew into English—that finds ironic humor in everything, even dealing with the painful vicissitudes of life. The transverse flute by Lepkoff in the background increased the poignancy of the story.
Michael Collver’s countertenor added much to the beauty of the various pieces in which he sang. I would describe his voice as elegant, smooth, without edge, pleasantly floating through the various pitches of the music. He also contributed a resonant cornetto part on one work, an instrument of conical bore made of wood usually with six finger holes and played like a brass instrument with a cup-shaped mouthpiece. Carol Lewis’ well-played vielle was frequently used to underline the music, establishing a solid base for the harmonic contexts.
The presentation of the music was free-flowing in that the usual and obvious breaks from one piece to the next were obscured by what seemed to be improvised interludes, particularly on the stringed instruments. I found this somewhat disconcerting (especially for someone who doesn’t know this repertoire very well), compounded by that fact that the works were in one or more of the three languages. Perhaps this approach can be somewhat ameliorated in the future by more careful transitions.
Even so, there were no dull moments in the concert, particularly when Ziya Tabassian and Razgui added drum and tambourine to the proceedings. Middle Eastern rhythms enliven the music in a strongly kinesthetic fashion that dares the listener to sit still. All in all, this concert featured fine musicianship, expertise in voice and every instrument, scholarly renditions of the scores and texts, and joyful music making.
We share much across the three worlds touched on in this concert, and its success flies in opposition to the social unrest generated by conflicts revolving around ethnicity. Were music to be sufficiently powerful to permeate every soul to the point of cleansing us of our destructive excesses, the world would indeed be a better place. We could then sing as was sung in one of the songs on circumcision: “I open my lips with happiness. We shall sing tomorrow at dinner. I shall praise God Highest on the tambourin and the violin. Shalom aleikhem, As-Salāmu `Alaykum, peace be with you.”