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Boston Camerata Still Building Bridges

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The Sacred Bridge: Jews and Christians in Medieval Europe,
Boston Camerata, J. Cohen
Joel Cohen's The Sacred Bridge, with the Boston Camerata, was one of the recordings that made a big impression on a certain undergraduate music major, one of many early music dreams that inspired me to study historical musicology. Five of the performers featured on that album, released two decades ago on the Erato label, returned to the Music Room of Dumbarton Oaks on Monday night, with an updated and expanded version of Cohen's original idea. To help draw connections not only between Jewish and Christian music in the Middle Ages, but also with Muslim music, the Boston Camerata is collaborating with the Sharq Arabic Music Ensemble. Much of the repertoire has changed -- gone is Hans Neusiedler's "Der Juden Tanz," for example, in its notorious (and notoriously erroneous) "bitonal" transcription -- but the mode of performance remains austere, perfect listening for Advent.

Cohen is slightly more cautious these days about drawing connections between music from different religious traditions, since the book from which the concert's title is drawn -- Eric Werner's The Sacred Bridge -- refers to one of the great musicological canards, the putative origins of Gregorian chant in Jewish synagogue music. Cohen still underscored the similarity of the tonus peregrinus and a Jewish psalm recitation formula, by having them sung side by side to the words of Psalm 113 (114). The tones are obviously very similar, not only to one another to but to lots of tunes in that mode: the similarity does not in itself imply any historical influence. In fact, because the older written sources are the Christian ones, one could just as easily argue that the Jewish tone was taken from a Christian model. Music from the Muslim tradition added an extra layer of complexity, as in the three evocations of the dawn, from the Piyyut "Shahar Abaqeshkha," the cantigas of Alfonso el Sabio, and from the Koran -- all sung monophonically, with no accompaniment, a soundscape meant to evoke the tapestry of traditions in medieval Spain.

Other Reviews:

Joan Reinthaler, Boston Camerata adds Muslim dimension (Washington Post, December 6)

Jeffrey Gantz, ‘Sacred Bridge’ a meeting of ensembles - and faiths (Boston Globe, December 6)

David Weininger, Joel Cohen, Boston Camerata celebrate diverse traditions (Boston Globe, December 2)
Soprano Anne Azéma, who is now the group's artistic director (although Cohen directed this concert), sounded in excellent form, her limpid voice floating ethereally from a distant room in the opening piece and in unaccompanied pieces like the 13th-century Par grant franchise, a bitter love song by the trouvère known only as Mathieu le Juif. By contrast, the voice of veteran countertenor Michael Collver has not weathered the passing of time quite so well, often somewhere between over-straining and cracking, but with some pretty moments in between. The austerity of the group's sound came from the relative simplicity of most of the instrumental contributions, Cohen's plucking at the lauta, the long lines of the flute and recorder of Jesse Lepkoff (with the exception of the the countermelody he contributed to Eftach sephatai berinah, which sounded like a Vivaldi concerto), and the dry vieille of Carol Lewis, which consisted largely of simple drones.

Cohen admitted, in somewhat rambling commentary, that the connections implied by the program were difficult to prove definitively. In particular, the selection of folk songs, most of which were not written down until very recently, is problematic, but no less beautiful for being historically tenuous. The percussion players of the Sharq Ensemble, Ziya Tabassian and Boujemaa Razgui, enlivened so many of the pieces with endlessly varied beats and sounds. The only thing one wished could have been omitted was Cohen's lengthy, and somewhat free, reading of an account of a poet's life, written by Yitzhak Gorni in the 13th century, with a little oud improvisation to accompany it. The couple laughs it got were not worth the leaden effect it had on the overall line of the program. A single encore, another Moroccan folk song, was offered "as a Christmas present," with its syncopated refrain serving as a sort of Arabic "fa la la la la" to wind us home.

The next concerts on the Friends of Music series at Dumbarton Oaks will feature the piano duo of Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia, in music of Bach, Stravinsky, and Mendelssohn (January 22 and 23).

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