The Boston Camerata’s “A Mediterranean Christmas” has been a staple program of that ensemble since the 1970s. Despite undergoing some revision over the years, the essence remained unchanged for this performance on December 21st in the sanctuary of the First Church Congregational Cambridge. The exploration of the Christmas story certainly bears telling in the songs and poetry from the region in which it was born. More specifically, sacred songs by 13th-century Castilian King Alfonso “el Sabio” (1221–1284) form the lattice work through which text and music from the coastal regions of Spain, France, Turkey, Italy, Israel, and Morocco are woven into a stylish narrative. As the Ensemble’s Director Emeritus Joel Cohen writes in his program notes:
It began, after all, in the Mediterranean Basin, in a corner of the world inhabited by high-strung, passionate, God-intoxicated Semites. And their burning desire for transcendence, for union with the source of Being took form in at least three world religions…Narration and storytelling are central to these cultures.
As ever, the Camerata delivered skilled and impassioned performances combining technical excellence with exultant musicianship, infusing the nearly 30 songs and spoken texts—primarily from the Middle Ages—with a vibrant immediacy that made it seem as if the tale they were telling happened only last week. Long-dead or extremely rare dialects, such as Occitan, Gallo-Portuguese, and early Italian, were resurrected and placed alongside still-living tongues, such as Ladino, Turkish, and Arabic. This linguistic variety paralleled the varied musical backgrounds of the musicians on stage, who were able to meld the sounds of their respective cultures into a remarkable sonic unit. Distinctly Arabic instruments, like the oud, nay, and zurna, matched their distinctly European cousins, like the vielle, recorder, and shawm. Performers added their own backgrounds and rich personalities. Vocalist and Artistic Director Anne Azéma spoke every word and sang every note with an infectious exhilaration. She was also an effective timbre-bridge between the high, crystalline sonorities of Camila Parias and the rich, lower hues of Deborah Rentz-Moore. Even when the performers weren’t vocalizing, they were singing with their instruments—most notably Steven Lundahl, who can play a recorder with the delicate intimacy of a cantor; and Karim Nagi, whose ability to coax the expressive subtleties of the finest vocalist from a riqq (tambourine) was simply astonishing.
It is difficult to find highlights in a concert that was so generally bright. Certainly the heartbreaking Andalusian song, “En Belén Tocan a Fuego,”about a poor Gypsy girl bringing a gift to the infant Jesus, was among the most touching. And the paring of a 4th-century Constantinopolitan chant “Fos Ilaron” with a 12th-century French chant “Lux Refulget,” both purely vocal, monophonic works supported by drones, embodied much of what the concert was about. In the former, oud player Mehmet Sanlikol sang the tune with the achingly expressive ornamentation common to Middle-Eastern song-stylings, while the latter was performed by the women singers with the glassy beauty of the more Western “note-to-note” convention. This mix of styles was employed throughout the program, recreating sonorities that could easily have been heard in the poly-ethnic regions in which the Christmas story evolved.
Only, this time around, it was much more than just an old story. And here I hope the reader will forgive me dropping my academically habitual third-person, since certain events engendered an array of emotions for which objectivity is simply too poor a narrative tool. For me, the deeper realization, the near shock of how immediate this music really is, came rather early on in the program, during Boujemaa Razgui’s stunning cantillation of a Quran passage lamenting Mary’s solitude. Up to this point, I had been listening with the ear and brain of a musicologist, measuring the differences and similarities in the styles of East and West, tracking in my mind’s timeline the modes and melodies, and the musico-cultural habits of the various people involved. At some point in the passage, though—just a matter of a short melisma, really—the encyclopædia in my brain collided with the observer of current events and exploded in a cascade of confusion. There is so much here that is similar and so much that is not, even down to the musical bones (this chanting of Quranic verse, bringing me to tears, would not even be considered “music” by many), and the only way to come to terms with it should be to explore; but the more you look, the more connections and disconnects you find, not just in the music, but in the people that make it; variety causes chaos, common ground gives way to foxholes, but it’s the same dirt, the same flesh and sounds, and people suddenly rant about walls and are blowing each other up, and if we could find clarity, we could stop it, but there’s too much, too many layers, ouds are lutes but crescents aren’t crosses, and it’s all so complicated and hard to sort out.
By the end of the chant, though, I was calm again. It turns out that clarity lies in the complexity itself; and that’s an amazing thing. What these musicians are doing, embracing the beauty of the alike-and-at-the-same-time-different with such joy, is a lesson for the ages; the ones from which the music hailed, as well as our own. Sadly, it is lost on too many. More than that, what the performers and the listeners were reveling in, this wondrous receiving of self-reflecting diversity, is a threat to narrower minds and darker souls who can react against it with so much viciousness. Music and the stories it tells are products of vibrant human imagination. But when fear invades, imagination wilts, and in its place grow demagoguery and terror. That, too, is part of the story, then as now. The only way to stop having to write those dark chapters—to avoid that dismal in sæcula sæculorum—is to keep singing about the light ones. And, above all, to keep listening.