One of the most fascinating occurrences of musical syncretism in Western music developed over the 500 years or so during which much of the Iberian Peninsula was part of the Muslim world. By the 13th century, the region had cultivated a colorful sonic blend of early Arabic and Medieval European sensibilities, of free-flowing melismas and budding polyphony, and of two distinct modal structures, both still ringing with echoes of Ancient Greece. Yet it is a time and place that is, by and large, ignored by the standard Western canon.
Fortunately, there is the Boston Camerata, an ensemble that, in the past few decades, has produced some of the most musically satisfying and musicologically sound explorations of the unusual. On December 20th at the First Lutheran Church in Boston, this group, along with three musicians from the Sharq Arabic Music Ensemble, delivered “A Mediterranean Christmas,” a program that illuminated the rich and festive traditions of this Abrahamic amalgam from the dawn of the second Millennium.
The first half of the concert presented various religious works related to the Christmas story. The second half was a telling of the story itself. Both consisted of music from traditions in and around Medieval Iberia, including Tuscany, Southern France, and the Sephardim. Like the variety of music, the panoply of languages both sung and spoken was impressive: long-dead dialects, such as Occitan, Gallo-Portuguese, and early Italian, were resurrected and placed alongside still-living tongues, such as Ladino, Spanish, and Arabic.
Most of the works on the program—29 altogether—are by unknown composers, with the exception of eight cantigas attributed to the Castilian King Alfonso X “el Sabio” (1221–1284). These songs of the Virgin Mary allowed both Sharq and the Camerata to effectively combine the sounds of their respective musical cultures. Distinctly Arabic instruments, like the oud, nay, and zurna, were matched with their distinctly European cousins, like the lauta, recorder, and shawm, recreating sonorities that could easily have been heard in Alfonso’s poly-ethnic Spain. They also allowed both groups to show what they could make of strophic, monophonic songs: potentially dull in their repetitiveness and lack of harmony, these works were infused with a wide variety of textures, ornamentations, and story-telling techniques, all of which kept the colors fresh and engaging.
A few of the works were either clearly Arabic, such as the filigreed singing of a Koranic verse, or clearly European, such as the unadorned rendition of a Gregorian chant. However, some of the most powerful moments came from works in which the unique characteristics of each tradition were highlighted through their combination. The loveliest example of this was the performance of a touching Andalusian song about a poor Gypsy girl bringing a gift to the infant Jesus. It was accompanied primarily by a guitar—a timbre familiar to Western ears—but also by soft, haunting improvisations on the nay, a Middle-Eastern notch-flute with a sound like reedy gossamer that is quite foreign to the West. The guitar was also joined by the oud (lute) for a brief interlude in which the incongruity between Arabic and European tunings created a panging tension that added to the poignancy of the song.
For all this musicological feasting, what really made the concert a delight was that it was delivered with such skilled and joyful musicianship. Shaq’s director, Karim Nagi, is a consummate percussionist, able to produce an astonishing variety of sounds and expressions on instruments as simple as a riqq (similar to a tambourine). Steven Lundahl, the Camerata’s Jack-of-all-wind-instruments, demonstrated surprising flexibility and performed an unusually intimate and beautiful rendition of a cantiga on the recorder. Though the onstage personas of the Camerata’s three singers, Anne Azéma, Salomé Sandoval, and Anne Harley, were often distractingly dissimilar, their vocal sonorities were perfectly matched. This was especially effective in Joel Cohen’s artful realizations of early polyphonic songs from Limoges, with deliciously strange thirds and glassy pure fifths arising from the singers’ brave employment of untempered tuning. The evening’s real standout performer, however, was Sharq’s Mehmet Sanlikol. He proved himself a master of improvisation on the oud and the zurna; but his true gift is his singing. His achingly emotive performances of the Sephardic “Respondemos” and the Turkish “Sen bir Guzel Meleksin” were simply stunning.
Despite the snow storm that threatened to cancel the whole show, the church was filled with an enthusiastic audience. They must have known that their trek through the snow, much like that of the Magi’s across the desert in that old story, would lead them to something wonderful.
Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.