Monday, September 8, 2008

The Golden Age of Judeo-Spanish Music,Beit Avi Chai,Jerusalem

The main auditorium at Beit Avi Chai was crowded to overflowing on the evening of August 21. The occasion was “Sounds from the Golden Age” – an evening of Ladino songs from the Golden Age of Sephardic music, interspersed with instrumental pieces from the Middle Ages. The concert was under the musical direction of recorder player and flautist Michael Melzer, who saw this as an opportunity to breathe new life into existing material by way of his own musical arrangements. People attending the concert represented different groups of Jerusalem communities. An instrumental ensemble of recorders, oud, percussion, double bass and a specially constructed viol combination instrument - was seated on the stage. The players were joined by singers Ofer Khalaf and Esti Keinan.

With a startling, buzzy barrage of driving rhythms, the concert opened with Francisco de la Torre’s (beginning 16th century) “Danza”, after which a jaunty early Saltarello was played mostly in parallel octaves, providing solos for several of the players. We heard an Estampie, the text of which was found in France, one of the few written for two voices. “Tre Fontane” (Three Wellsprings), a dance from the Middle Ages, representing the three monotheistic religions which had joined forces till the Jews’ banishment from Spain, was energetic, with recorders and oud placed against an ostinato of bowed instruments and drum – a virtuosic piece. Guglielmo Ebreo da Pesaro (Benjamin Guglielmo) was a Jewish dancing master in the 15th century in Pesaro, Italy. He served many European courts and wrote a treatise on dancing – “De pratica seu arte tripudii vulgare opusculum (On the Practice or Art of Dancing) (1463) – which included both tunes and choreography. In his reading of Guglielmo’s “La Spagna”, a basse dance (i.e. all steps close to the floor with no leaps) Melzer creates a tranquil, beautifully crafted solo to the accompaniment of double bass and percussion. The last dance played was “Cho min ciamento di gioia” (The Start of a Game), a homophonic, set of long, intricate phrases, each ending simultaneously.

Singer Ofer Khalaf did not grow up hearing songs in Ladino at home, but has made a serious study of the repertoire under the guidance of Rubic Simantov. Khalaf presented a number of Ladino romances, the first of which was “La rosa enflorece”, (The Rose Blooms in May) a 16th century love song of the Judeo-Spanish oral tradition, as passed on from generation to generation by Jewish women. In a superb and heart-rending performance of this much-loved song, Melzer’s arrangement was introduced by viol and double bass – double bass player Chagai Bilitsky had much to say melodically - it was expressive and mournful, with Ralli Margalit skillfully “singing” and ornamenting the melody on her viol-combination instrument in oriental, fragrant idiom. Khalaf began the song itself with humming, then adding the words, with his own expressive interpretation. The viol brought the piece to a poignant close.
‘The rose blooms in May
But my soul wilts from love sickness;
Nightingales sing with sighs of love.
In your hands are my soul and my fate.
Come quicker, dove, hurry and save me.’

The Romance “Porque IIorax, blanca nina” (Why Should You Cry?) exists in a number of versions. The whispering effects at the outset of the piece belie undertones of a complex domestic plot, whereby a man leaves his young wife, advising her to find a new husband after eight years of his absence. Melzer gives his instrumentalists individual melodic roles and expression, the combination of which resulted in a mesmerizing collage; Khalaf’s singing is full of feeling, from the gut. The next song he performed was probably in existence before the Jews were banished from Spain. Another tricky family situation unfolds here: a young man, released from prison, arrives at his mother’s home with a girl who is, as fate would have it, his mother’s daughter. In this strophic song, Oren Fried’s percussion sets the scene together with Chagai Bilitsky on double bass. We become aware of a military march in the distance. Khalaf sings the emotional text in a strident, uncompromising, heart-rending manner.

Melzer has clothed the touching, cantabile Ladino lullaby “Durme, durme” in Renaissance dress, beginning with an instrumental version of it, with delicate percussion bell effects creating an air of magic. Recorder solos were lyrical and pleasing. Khalaf’s sung verses were sandwiched between lilting instrumental sections. The instrumentalists joined the singing, too
‘Sleep, sleep, Mother’s little one,
Free from worry and grief.
Listen, my joy, to your mother’s words,
To the words of “Shema Yisrael”.
Sleep, sleep, Mother’s little one,
With the beauty of “Shema Yisrael”’.

Esti Keinan-Ofri is a singer, dancer and instrumentalist who performs ethnic music, in particular, Ladino songs, into which she shows great insight. At this concert, she presented four songs in Ladino, each being a performance in the true sense! Keinan sang two versions of “Tres hermanicas” (Three Sisters), opening with a duet with Margalit. Keinan’s alto voice is rich, boasting a large range; however, her strength lies in her dramatic presence and total involvement in her texts. In her second song, “Maldicha tripa” (A Cursed Belly), oud player Luai Chilifi plays a beguiling, meditative solo. The plot tells of a young daughter who goes to war to save her father from conscription. Keinan, with her large palette of gestures and vocal color, is expressive and spontaneous, taking the listener into the depths of his or her soul. In “La mujer de Terach” (Terach’s wife, mother of Abraham) Keinan accompanying herself with the utmost of delicacy with the help of a small gong, is eventually joined by Fried’s voice and percussions. (They perform together as the “Kol-Toff” [Voice-drum] Duo.)Beginning with a somewhat Sprechgesang (speech in song) technique, Keinan’s reading of the piece takes her into strident sounds of the most vehement expression. Her fourth song, the wedding song “Ay, que Buena” (Oh, How Beautiful), was also performed with Fried – a percussionist whose hallmark is good taste and delicacy. The song is sensitive, sensuous and earthy. Keinan is free and spontaneous in her use of the stage, her face and body. She and Fried communicate well, complementing each other in understated nuances.

The evening ended with Ofer Khalaf singing “Yo menamore d’un aire” (I Fell in Love), one of the most popular and best-known Ladino songs. To this joyful, flowing melody Melzer has added independent melodic lines for recorders. As in some of the texts above, we are once again reminded that the domestic scene is fraught with problems! The audience savored every moment of it.
‘I fell in love with a breeze,
A breeze of a woman so pretty,
Dearer to me than my heart.
I fell in love during the night,
The moon deceived me-
Were it daytime, I would not have found love.
If I fall in love ever again
I will do it in daylight.’

This concert was the outcome of much research, work and artistic creativity on the part of Michael Melzer and his fellow musicians. The combination of Ladino songs and Renaissance dances was interesting and certainly refreshing. Melzer’s instrumentalists are hand-picked, his singers outstanding; performance was polished, at the same time leaving room for freedom and spontaneity. Considering the wealth of material covered in the concert and the audience’s interest and involvement, a detailed printed program would have been helpful. The auditorium at Beit Avi Chai is a pleasing venue for events of this kind.

“Sounds of the Golden Age”
Michael Melzer-artistic direction, musical arrangements, recorders
Yael Melzer-recorders
Ofer Khalaf-tenor
Ralli Margalit-“Hu-Tar” ‘cello
Luai Chilifi-oud
Chagai Bilitsky-double bass
Oren Fried-percussions
Guest artist Esti Keinan-Ofri-alto
Beit Avi Chai, Jerusalem
August 21, 2008

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