Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Review: The Rose Ensemble

Jan. 13, University of Richmond

Many Americans grew up thinking that the "melting pot" – the meeting of people of different races and nationalities and their eventual melding into a new culture – was a distinctively American phenomenon. Actually, a lot of other places beat us onto the stove, some by thousands of years.

The Rose Ensemble, a Minnesota-based early music group, explored, in "Cantigas from the Land of Three Faiths," the music of one of the largest and most diverse of the world’s melting pots, the Mediterranean littoral, whose lands were points of encounter among European, African and Asian cultures and Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths.

The historical focal point of the program was medieval Spain and the music of its Sephardic Jews, but many of the selections came from elsewhere – Italy, North Africa, Anatolia and the Bedouin Arab migration routes.

The program’s musical heart may have been two pieces: "Porke yorash," a Sephardic tune from Morocco and/or Turkey (and/or who really knows where?), which would not sound out of place sung in a synagogue or a souk, or, with modern orchestral dressing, grafted onto "Scheherazade" or made into another "Romanian Rhapsody;" and "Ghaetta," a popular dance tune in 14th-century Italy that, to modern ears, sounds more Levantine or Arabic than European.

The mixed geographical and cultural roots of these and other selections are not surprising, considering the history of the Mediterranean empires – Egyptian, Macedonian, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, Ottoman – with their many ethnic groups traveling within and beyond their borders, trading tunes as well as foods and fabrics.

The Rose Ensemble’s 10 singers and four instrumentalists (two in vocal-instrumental roles) were both communicative – translations from Ladino, the medieval Spanish-Sephardic language, and other tongues were printed but often proved unnecessary – and stylistically versatile, as performers had better be in a program ranging from the polyphony of Palestrina to dances of the Bedouin. The singers mostly avoided the low-vibrato straight tone commonly employed in early music, presumably because the lyrics of most pieces so clearly demanded expressive, sensual treatment.

Many listeners, I suspect, left the concert wanting to hear more of the work of Juan del Encina, an early 16th-century Spanish composer whose enticing melodies are garnished with a rhythmic character that we would now call swing.