Although we know that Brahms wandered from Vienna in his Hungarian Dances, we are somehow unsurprised: informed by the details of his personal history, these peregrinations somehow seem a propos — a touching throwback to the composer’s youth. Indeed, we expect these when we listen to Smetana, Dvořák, or Sibelius: music narrating personal history in a way that is familiar to our conception of nationality. But how to assign cultural identity when those elements are so mixed? This seemed to be at the heart of the performance by Voice of the Turtle in St. John the Evangelist’s Church on Saturday, May 19. In a concert entitled “De Muevo,” the three-member ensemble tackled music from the Sephardic communities of the Jewish diaspora.
What is at the same time both wonderful and mystifying is how little remained constant in the pieces performed on Saturday evening. As Jay Rosenberg commented during the performance, what we now know as the Sephardic communities originated as the Jewish populations on the Iberian peninsula. This population developed a very particular Jewish heritage for roughly 1,500 years but then was dispersed across the Mediterranean during the Spanish Inquisition of the 16th century. What results is somewhat astonishing — Spanish ballades with Turkish choruses (Por la tu puerta yo pasí), Ladino cropping up in Greece or Bulgaria (Tres ermanikas eran, or Se veriax a la rana), not to mention the rich cultural traditions of Morocco, Romania, Yugoslavia, Egypt and the Balkans. Saturday evening’s concert keenly demonstrated that the cultural heritage of pre-Inquisition Spanish Judaism is very much alive and vibrant to this day.
Voice of the Turtle returned after a three-year hiatus after the untimely death of Judith Wachs. In addition to the original members of Lisle Kulbach and Jay Rosenberg, the ensemble introduced its newest member, Ian Pomerantz, who bore the vocal burden for the majority of the concert. Pomerantz’s voice is ideal for this form of folk music — a rich baritone capable of broad proclamations, as in the Hebrew blessing over wine and fruit while maintaining the lyrical qualities of more nuanced passages, particularly the Romanian lullaby Durme, durme, or the Balkan love-song Pasharo D’ermozura. Yet Pomerantz’s substantial talents (often, he was featured on an instrument simultaneous with his singing) is not to overlook the considerable contributions of each of the other members. Jay Rosenberg and Lisle Kulbach showed remarkable proficiency on a variety of instruments that included (but by no means were limited to) the ‘ud, guitar, psaltery, violin and flutes, a mere snapshot of the musical traditions represented. Former member Derek Burrow joined the ensemble in leading the audience in the final work of the evening, a Bulgarian ballad El Koron de los muchachos — with some Turkish words.
Clearly this music is redolent in deep cultural and personal history, as evidenced by the occasional reminiscences from the performers of family members’ travels and flight from the Mediterranean to the United States. Saturday’s performances were enlightening in a deeply essential way: it is rare to hear the instruments and languages that were on Saturday’s program, let alone hear them synthesized into a performance of music (all the texts and translations are downloadable as a Word doc here.) However, it is impossible not to feel that there was a rich heritage that was not explained on Friday afternoon, to explore more fully the meaning of what “Sephardic music” means. The performance of a new work on the program — a productive collaboration between Pomerantz and poet Gracia Jak Albuhayre (Tornate kerida–scored for voice, guitar and violin) — only emphasizes the need to highlight the living and vibrant cultures. Certainly, a tradition that spans from Spain to Turkey, synthesizing the languages, harmonic devices, and melodies of the various cultures it encounters would have benefited from more explanation and educational arch in the programming.