For nearly a decade, Pro Musica Hebraica has championed Jewish classical music by presenting concerts filled with forgotten gems. On Monday evening at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, its first foray into Sephardic musical traditions proved timely and celebratory, with the Amernet String Quartet and two guest artists transporting listeners to medieval Spain.
Because Spanish Jews preserved their culture through oral traditions, Sephardic music was rarely written down but rather passed between generations through singing. Composer Alberto Hemsi sought to capture the songs he heard in his travels, ultimately publishing 10 volumes of melodies.
Inspired by Hemsi’s efforts, composer Ljova (Lev Zhurbin) — commissioned by Pro Musica Hebraica — arranged “Blanca Nina,” a suite of traditional songs and ballads. For this world premiere, mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway sang with haunting presence while Amernet played an equal partner in depicting a young woman’s life in Sephardic Spain.
Calloway showed her operatic prowess in two selections from Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s 1966 song cycle “Divan of Moses-Ibn-Ezra,” Op. 207. Steven Cohen’s new setting of the work also featured Amernet with guitarist Adam Levin.
Later, echoes of flamenco and castanets could be heard in Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet, Op. 143, where Amernet achieved an easy balance with Levin, whose timbre permeated the group even at his quietest moments.
In Levin’s hands, Carlos Cruz de Castro’s “Secuencia Sefardita” for solo guitar unfolded in a visceral, imaginative way. He plucked, strummed and slapped the strings from neck to soundboard in a dizzying exploration of sound.
Jean is a freelance writer.