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East Meets West at Longy


Chevalier's Medal

The Boston Camerata will celebrate Chanukah with one of their most significant programs: The Sacred Bridge, an interfaith collaboration among Jewish, Christian and Muslim musicians on December 5 at Pickman Hall, Longy School of Music, Cambridge, at 3:00 pm. The program, led by Music Director Emeritus Joel Cohen, features Jewish and Christian liturgical song, minstrel music of the Middle Ages, Sephardic music, and Judaeo-Arabic works from the Arabo-Andalusian tradition. Among the array of European and Oriental musical instruments to be featured are the flute, recorder, cornetto, oud, lauta, nay, darbouk, and tambourine.

“It’s one of our most exotic and fascinating programs,” remarks Cohen, the leader of this production. “And having our friends from the Sharq ensemble celebrating the Jewish holiday season with us gives it a special meaning.”

Directly following the concert, Anne Azéma, Camerata’s artistic director, will be decorated as Chevalier of Arts and Letters by the French Government in a brief ceremony headed by French Consul General in Boston, Mr. Christophe Guilhou.

Boston Musical Intelligencer publisher Lee Eiseman asked Camerata director Anne Azema about the program and the honor.

You have said that this program is a celebration of East Meets West. But could it not also be a celebration of an earlier era of happy coexistence among the three faiths?

Yes, this program has a celebratory side to it, particularly the second half. But let’s not idealize the whole of European history and not sin by romanticizing this rather heavy problem. We are focusing on moments of light, here.

Please remind our reader of where and in what era such a Golden Age of mutual acceptance and cross fertilization existed.

There was no Golden Age. The Jews in most of Europe were not in good places most of the time.
There might have been sunnier places here and there. Spain, for example, was unique because of the Muslim caliphates — which gave more freedom to the Jews than the Christian rulers typically did.

Can you give examples of shared musical themes and practices?

You can assume that minstrels — Jewish or not — had the same metier and shared practices. Matthieu le Juif writes in the same poetic language and poetic structure as his Christian counterparts; the melody that survives with this particular poem of his that we chose to do is related to a twelfth-century troubadour song.

There are some melodic elements shared between synagogal chanting and a few Gregorian melodies. Within the Hispanic repertoire there are modal similarities shared between Muslims and Jewish repertoires (in some cases, recycling of identical melodies). This program we are doing concentrates on similarities and communalities.

Joel Cohen Anne Azema and

Does your show include musical celebrations of the respect and toleration that existed at such times?

I am not sure what you mean by respect and toleration. Is there an ‘Alle Menschen werden Brüder’ from the European Middle ages? We don’t know of one. Don’t forget, the program covers about seven centuries. It casts a very wide net. Obadiah the Proselyte went to Egypt because he was an apostate — he converted to Judaism. Not much tolerance in twelfth-century Italy for poor Obadiah. Intercultural penetration probably existed alongside intolerance, as it does today.

Was the relationship of Nathan the Wise with his friends from other faiths an aberration?

Yes and No: Alfonso the Wise had Christians, and Muslims, and Jews at his court.

Nathan the Wise comes from the Enlightenment period. I’m not sure we can compare retroactively to other chapters of history, even if Lessing’s sentiments are noble.

How have the attitudes towards music or against music evolved among the three faiths?

That is a full PhD subject in itself! Two of the questions hotly debated within all monotheistic religions are one, the participation of women and two, the presence of instruments. In this concert we introduce instruments when we think they might have a plausible role. Obviously we chose to include women, generally not in a liturgical context.

Haven’t all three faiths swung between puritanical denial and spiritual embrace of music, and not in any sort of synchrony?

Yes. Good point.

Tell us a bit about how the Sephardic tradition differs from the more common Ashkenazi in the cultural experience of American Jews.

There is another PhD right there! Sephardic music tends to reflect the musical ethos of its host countries. Much Sephardic music now heard in the US and in Europe is a kind of “Westernized” style. We try to be truer to a plausible original context: this is of the reasons for the presence of the Sharq ensemble alongside Camerata in our program.

What about the lost tradition of Baghdad?

Even if I do not know the complete Baghdadi Passover music, I chose some cantilation from Baghdad to open “A Symphony of Psalms,” the program I did last fall.

The Camerata Ensemble

Have any difficulties ever arisen in your presentation of The Sacred Bridge?

Yes indeed; we have had priests objecting to the Jewish content; rabbis objecting to the Christian content; Muslims objecting to the length of the improvised prelude — mostly that it’s too short; others — mostly Jews — objecting to the presence of women; and all objecting to the schlemiel shtick of Joel reading Itzhak Gorni

Wadaya mean by Joel’s shtick?

I think the only thing I can say is — come to the concert and see/listen; this bit usually gets good laugh!

Can you suggest a reading list?

The Sacred Bridge by Eric Werner, Alfred Sendrey’s and A.Z. Idelsohn’s books.
Recent interesting studies of Medieval French Jewish Communities is Vernacular Voices, by Kirsten A. Fudeman, published in 2010.

Is your phone ringing more now that you are a Chevalier?

The sun still rises and sets every day and I cooked a big organic turkey last week.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Everybody loved the turkey.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — December 4, 2010 at 12:12 pm

  2. Everybody loved the concert.
    Sold-out house and standing ovation.

    Comment by perry — December 6, 2010 at 10:44 am

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