In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch gives the sage advice, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” In an age of intolerance and exclusion masquerading as piety, the Boston Camerata and Sharq Arabic Music Ensemble are crucial for reminding us how long we’ve been walking around in each other’s cultural skins.
On Saturday night at Longy School’s Pickman Concert Hall, Boston Camerata (music director Anne Azéma, eminence grise Joel Cohen, Michael Collver, Jesse Lepkoff, and Carol Lewis), assisted by the Sharq Arabic Music Ensemble (Ziya Tabassian, Boujoumaa Razgui, and Mehmet Sanlikol in tonight’s program), reprised the Camerata’s two-decades-old program, “The Sacred Bridge.” The program is Cohen’s exploration of links between the music of Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Middle Ages forward. Cohen divided the program into five major sections and introduced each set.
The beginning of the program used a sequence of tunes that comprise Part I and Part II, played without a break to generate a theatrical atmosphere. Lepkoff began the program, playing alone on a flute. Then Azéma started a Sephardic song, “Boray ad ana” from the rear right balcony; Collver joined in unison from the rear left balcony, and Lepkoff joined the fray. Cohen walked on stage as the “Boray ad ana” ended and started Psalm 137 facing away from the audience. What was the effect?
The group transitioned immediately to Part II (the Sacred Bridge). Collver and Cohen presented Psalm 114, where the alternating verses of Latin and Hebrew demonstrated that the Hebrew formula for the Psalm entered the Gregorian chant repertoire as the tonus peregrinus. Then Sanlikol led vocally in Obadiah the Proselyte’s moving “Eulogy of Moses.” The audience was swept along from one moment to the other and sat stunned and breathless before starting to clap with some encouragement from Cohen.
After an explanation from him about the experience of exclusion within a shared cultural milieu, the group started Part III (Jewish minstrels in the Christian Middle Ages). There were generous helpings of human and humorous here, including Azéma singing Matthew the Jew’s, “Par grant franchise,” a doleful lament over abandoned love in which the singer rues abandoning his God for a faithless beloved. Azéma moved back to her seat during an instrumental interlude, then spun back to the audience to spit out the curse of the final envoi in spoken fashion before resuming her seat in a huff. Her thorough familiarity with the program gave her the freedom to inflect lines and impart drama. Her uncanny straight-tone tuning gave her expressive control over consonances and suspensions. Collver sang a soulful lament by Sueskind von Trimberg. And there was Cohen, delighting in recounting an English translation of the half-boastful, half-baleful autobiographical poem of the minstrel and “medieval schlemiel,” Isaac Gorni.
For Part IV of the program, Camerata and Sharq turned to Jewish folk songs of the Mediterranean. On offer were Spanish-language songs of the bridegroom and bride collected relatively recently in Morocco and the Balkans, and a circumcision song notated in the 18th century, but belonging to the same tradition. The latter stood out, alternating verses in Hebrew and Provençal as Lepkoff injected a bouncy, Brandenburgian energy in the flute part.
The entire second half of the concert, presented without a break, centered around the musical world of Alfonso X El Sabio, the legendary Spanish king. In Alfonso’s court, Jews, Christians, and Muslims worked side by side. In this segment, Hebrew Piyyut, Arabic Sanaa, and Christian Cantiga alternated in rapid succession, sometimes in rondo form, always demonstrating uncanny shared modes and tunes. For a well deserved encore, the Camerata and Sharq played a jubilant excerpt from a Moroccan nuba.
It was impressive to behold the Swiss-army-knife versatility of multiple members of the group. Cohen sang, deciphered text and context, raconteured, and made his lute sound strikingly like an oud; Collver used countertenor range to match Azéma’s soprano, then baritone range to match Cohen, and played cornetto sometimes in the same songs in which he sang. Boston-based Mehmet Sanlikol played oud and sang with verve and passion, once even goading Cohen to go along with an unscripted improvisation. It was a joy to watch idle members of the ensemble as they watched their colleagues who were playing. They would grin, or nod their heads, or mutter approvingly at a phrase skillfully handled.
This territory has been explored by the group many times in the past. Cohen’s full program notes, reviews of the concert, and a CD of one incarnation of this program are available here. Boston Camerata has been performing this program with musicians from the Muslim tradition for some time, raising some controversy about mingling Near Eastern percussion with European songs notated without accompaniment. Last year’s presentation of this program was thoughtfully reviewed for the Intelligencer by Virginia Newes; you can read her thoughts on the controversies around the Camerata’s speculative instrumentations, and Joel Cohen’s riposte to her review here. One way or the other, Boston Camerata and Sharq Arabic Music Ensemble have created a performance that bridges Europe, Asia, and Africa; Jewish, Christian, and Muslim; historically informed performance and oral folk tradition, and they gave us a chance to walk in a variety of skins.