Boston Camerata adds Muslim dimension

December 5, 2011

When Joel Cohen and his Boston Camerata put together their “Sacred Bridge” program in 1989, it proved to be a captivating exploration of the shared threads that run through the Jewish and Christian music of medieval Europe. Anne Azéma is now at Camerata’s helm (with Cohen’s ongoing participation), and she’s added a dollop of the music of the medieval Muslim world to the mix, drawing from the rich resources of the melting pot that was the medieval Iberian Peninsula.

It is music that draws, vividly and unexpectedly, on common sources with the Judeo-Christian mainstream and adds a third dimension to this already heady collection.

Camerata’s performance in the wonderfully medieval-soaked Dumbarton Oaks music room on Sunday, joined by the Sharq Arabic Music Ensemble, reveled, most strikingly, in context.

Latin and Hebrew verses of Psalm 114 alternated, their ornamented cantillations mirroring each other. An energetic march, familiar to early music buffs, emerged from an instrumental setting of the Kaddish, morphed into one of the “Cantigas de Santa Maria” by Portuguese King Alfonzo el Sabio, and then to an Arabic-inflected dance — all the same tune but having traveled through different cultures.

There were love songs by Jewish minstrels (as Cohen said, even then minorities were accepted as entertainers), a song by an unhappy misfit and a stately Arabo-Andalusian dance. Instruments were used sparingly with the vocals but, on their own, they danced with rhythmic exuberance and sometimes exotic sonorities.


The Boston Camerata (Courtesy of The Boston Camerata/Courtesy of The Boston Camerata)

Improvisatory musings by the lute or flute led seamlessly from one piece to the next and, from time to time Cohen commented and expanded on the origins and connections between them. The singers — Cohen, Azéma, countertenor Michael Collver and Mehmet Sanlikol — suited their deliveries to the music, sometimes rough and direct, sometimes remarkably florid and delicate, but always absolutely on pitch.

And the Dumbarton Oaks setting added a wonderful patina to the whole musical picture.

Reinthaler is a freelance writer.

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