Sephardicmelodies fromold Spain


The Minnesota-based Rose Ensemble performed at the National Gallery of Art Sunday night. (Michael Haug/Courtesy of The Rose Ensemble)
December 12, 2011

Just in time for Hanukkah, the Minnesota-based Rose Ensemble performed a program focused on Sephardic music at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday night. Similar to a program offered by the Boston Camerata at Dumbarton Oaks the previous weekend, the concert mingled music from Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions in an evocation of medieval Spain and the Mediterranean. That requires a healthy dose of speculative reconstruction, which felt more authentic in the Boston Camerata’s collaboration with an Arabic music ensemble.

Much of the credit for this program’s success was due to the generally fine contributions from the five singers, who formed a well-blended ensemble.

The often-difficult acoustics of the museum’s West Garden Court provided a resonant backdrop to pieces like a Christmas carol by Francisco Guerrero, for voices alone, and the treble trio singing as one in the mesmerizing chant “Cives caelestis patriae.” Particularly admirable solos came from the dulcet high tenor of Nicholas Chalmers and the fluty soprano of guest artist Nell Snaidas.

Alluring colors were added by the instrumentalists: the group’s founder Jordan Sramek (psaltery and organistrum), Ginna Watson (rebec, vielle and harp), David Burk (oud and guitar) and Tim O’Keefe (occasionally over-extravagant percussion).

Authenticity is ultimately a quixotic goal with music known almost exclusively through oral tradition, because most of the Sephardic and Arabic music performed here was first notated or collected not that long ago. The sourcing was hardly scholarly either, with several of the Sephardic melodies credited as having been “taught to the Rose Ensemble” by Snaidas. Truth be told, we don’t have much more of a reliable idea of how to perform the Christian music in the concert either, even though it was written in manuscripts in the Middle Ages.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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