Snow, fir trees, Santa Clause, all these and other wintery things are what we usually think of as Christmas traditions. Music played or sung at this time of year is often carols or jolly ditties. How much earlier in the year can these be played at the mall, I wonder.
So, it was a surprising and wonderful change to be entertained by The Boston Camerata, an eminent early music ensemble on Tuesday evening. The concert was put on by the Arte Musica Foundation. I didn’t really know what the program would be. It’s such a busy time of the year that I was just glad to have tickets to what was billed as “A Mediterranean Christmas Concert”. I was rather wary of “early music”. I must admit. I had visions of solemn reedy singers accompanied by slender reedy instruments singing Hey Nonny No interminably. “Oh, well, ” I thought, “It is Mediterranean so there will be a few Italian or Spanish pieces.” I lured a kind companion into coming with me.
Bourgie Hall was about three quarters full. There were a few chairs and mysterious looking instruments on the stage. We congratulated each other on having battled our way through a blinding snowstorm and relaxed into that pre-concert torpor that settles in before the artistes appear.
This was not to last, however, as we were galvanized by the piercing note of the ram’s horn or shofar being played from the balcony behind us. Certainly not the usual beginning for a Christmas concert. As soon as the opening piece, which was quite amazing in its length and variety was over, a magnificent contralto also singing from the balcony continued the opening of the concert. The program notes were mercifully enlightening and laid out to my great pleasure the selections we would hear. The emphasis was on the influence of the Near-East and North Africa on the musical culture of medieval Iberia, Southern France and Byzantium. Works from all three Abrahamic religions were well represented in the concert and the performers (four men and three women) came from diverse backgrounds.
The musical director, Anne Azema spoke a little about the spirit of this concert. She felt it highlighted our similarities, rather than our differences. In the midst of war and terrible suffering in the whole Mediterranean basin it was wonderful to hear the verses from the Coran on the solitude of Mary, hymns to the Virgin from Spain and the South of France and even a Sephardic song from the Balkans. This concert has been revised and modified since it was first performed in the late 1970’s. A 2015 CD edition of the Mediterranean Christmas by the Boston Camerata is available.
Many of the selections were verses set to music by the king of Spain, Alfonso el Sabio. (Alfonse the Wise). He was king of Castile and Leon in the 13th century. I hung my head before my Spanish companion and confessed I had never heard of him or his glittering court. I know my education resembles Swiss cheese in that it consists of delicious morsels and large unexpected holes. I fear I fell from grace as I admitted my total ignorance of this man’s contributions to the culture of Europe. Ah more to read! I had better hurry up!
Alfonso promoted in his court Jews, Muslims, Christians and even women and permitted them to contribute to the arts and letters of the day. His poetic and musical work was prolific and contributed to the development of the modern Spanish language. His catatas are a huge body of work that influenced Iberian, French and Italian music. If only a few of our leaders, and we ordinary citizens, took a leaf out of his book we perhaps would not be in the morass of intolerance, cruelty and materialism that is our modern life.
The music was divine. Some of the singing by the trio of women was in stunning close harmony and the men’s voices were excellent too. The concept and choice of pieces was unusual and thought provoking. The texts were beautiful and conducive to meditation. The whole, performed under the beautiful Tiffany nativity window of Bourgie Hall, combined to give me a new standard for Christmas Concerts.