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Friday, December 25, 2015

Mediterranean Holiday

THE GUT-WRENCHING CRY of “Respondemos” – melismatic, nasal, featuring more flatted tones than any five Billie Holiday records – set a stark beginning against which Boston Camerata’s traditional entrance seemed all the more mysterious. Over a hurdy-gurdy drone, the voices behind us, which at another concert might have sounded the likes of “Watchman of Zion,” sang “Madre de Dios,” a Castillian carol from at least the 13th century.

Boston Camerata and Sharq Ensemble
This was the 26th Boston Camerata holiday appearance as part of the Union College concert series, and every year the ensemble is all the more desperately welcome. While it’s easy (and necessary) to note how awful is the season’s commercialism, there’s no more revolting aspect than bad holiday music, which thrives on the unfortunate fact that any song can be made memorable by relentlessly hammering it into your ears.

It’s doubtful that you’d encounter any part of any Boston Camerata Christmas program in the aural assault of the end of the year. It’s certain that no aspect of this year’s program, “A Mediterranean Christmas,” will be so sounded. Especially this year, when we’ve demonized so much of that region. “We need this program more than ever,” said artistic director Anne Azéma.

Assisting in the program -- as on their 2005 recording of this program -- was the Sharq Ensemble (Sharq means "east"), a trio led by Karim Nagi that specializes in presenting Arabic music to nervous western audiences. It's a brilliant assimilation of sound and style: the oud, a cousin of the lute, blends nicely with the violin-like vielle; the 4th-or-so century Turkish "Fos Ilaron" was sung by the Sharq's Mehmet Sanlikol against the Camerata's version of the Supremes -- Azéma, Camila Parias, and Deborah Rentz-Moore.

We know the shape of the story. A judgment, an annunciation, a pilgrimage, a birth. However divergent or comparatively ancient the culture that tells the story, it has accumulated ardent musical versions. This arc informs the many Camerata Christmas stories that have been shepherded onto the stage by (now music director emeritus) Joel Cohen.

Although it's something Fox "News" would resist acknowledging, the story spans many different documents, including the Koran. The Scriptural readings for this program encompassed enough of a variety of dialects to reinforce the universal nature of the story.Several verses were performed by Sanlikol and percussionist Boujemaa Razgui, both of whom, when singing, are masters of the ornamentation that marks the most skilled Middle Eastern vocal artists. It's the ability to crawl inside a vocal phrase and tease the most intimate chromatic nuances out of it.

Although Nagi performed most often on the riqq, a type of tambourine, with Razgui on ney (a type of flute) and Sanlikol on oud, they had other instruments on tap and freely passed them among one another as needed. And they danced -- constantly, even when seated.
Rounding out the ensemble were Beth Bahia Cohen on vielle and, occasionally, violin, and Steven Lundahl, drawing incredibly wonderful tones from a slide trumpet and a shawm, and he's versatile enough to play the shofar so good.

Many of the works on the program came from the 13th-century Alfonso X of Castile, who not only brought Jewish, Muslim, and Christian scholars to work together in his court but also was responsible for compiling -- and adding to -- a substantial body of religious song.

But there also were tunes from 12th-century France, from 14th-century Montserrat, from Morocco, Tuscany, the Balkans, and even a couple of austere Gregorian chants. But a Boston Camerata program is deftly compiled to offer a compelling contrasts in tempo and texture even as we delight in the cousinry of the music of such different times and places.
"Polorum Regina," for instance, rooted in the 14th century, sung by Rentz-Moore to vielle and bell, suggests "Good Christian Men Rejoice," an example of the relationships demonstrated again and again in these concerts.

And their use of the space -- Union College's Memorial Chapel -- always is impressive. When the musicians move through the house during some of the numbers, the aural space sparkles. (Come on, people -- you don't have to wriggle round and crane your necks. Music works differently when it's behind you. You don't need to see it to enjoy it.)

Like so many of the ensemble's holiday concerts, it's at once gentle and powerful, the more gentle for being a musical oasis in a desert of television and mall-shopping noise, the more powerful for telling a story gone lost in the seasonal secular madness. And, to emphasize Azéma's point once more, it's all the more needed to defuse the boneheaded, fear-based prejudices we continue to be so carefully taught.

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