2017 Early Music Festival caps its opening weekend with music of three faiths from medieval Spain

Conspicuous signs of past tolerance in one place across the three Abrahamic religions are eagerly cultivated in today's cultural climate. Many people look for models of this kind of thing, rare though they may be.

Another configuration of the Peabody Consort, with director Mark Cudek playing a hand drum.
Without becoming overtly political about it, the Peabody Consort put together a program focusing on the example of King Alfonso X of Castile, known as "El Sabio" (the Wise) in large part for his cultural magnanimity. 

In the latter half of Moorish settlement in the Iberian peninsula, Alfonso reigned from 1242 to 1284. His court assembled "Cantigas de Santa Maria," a large anthology of songs to the Virgin Mary. The king also promoted scholarship in Toledo to explore and preserve the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish cultural heritage represented among his subjects.

Selections from the cantigas were the linchpin of the Peabody Consort's concert for the Early Music Festival. Both the musicians and the organization are directed by Mark Cudek, who participated mostly on several percussion instruments. His colleagues were Brian Kay, oud, and Niccolo Seligmann, vielle, playing relatives of the lute and the fiddle, respectively, and a notably stylish and expressive soprano, Julie Bosworth. 

Guest artist Daphna Mor filled out the ensemble on recorders and ney, an end-blown Middle Eastern flute played at an angle. Kay and Mor also sang one piece each: Kay's performance of a nostalgic Arab song, "Nassam Alayna el-Hawa," was a concert highlight, as was Mor's vocal solo in a Jewish holy song of praise, "Tsur Mishelo."

The chiaroscuro effect of vocal and instrumental music gave extra color to the carefully organized program. The cantigas segment showed some of this music's range, with Steven Rickards' Echoing Air Vocal Ensemble supporting Bosworth in the refrains. 

Their pure, floating vocal timbre as a group perfectly complemented the soloist's more penetrating lyrical agility, exquisitely phrased. Her mastery of the intricate lines in "Cristo e nato" by Laudario di Cortona and the challenging range of the Arabic love song "Mwashsha" were just two demonstrations of her integral value to Peabody Consort music-making.

Cudek arranged for three local readers to put music from each religious tradition in context and then read relevant prose or poetry. The Rev. Robert A. Schilling read Gonzalo de Berceo's comical, didactic parable of "The Inebriated Monk"; Michael Toulouse read a rapturous poem full of sensuous detail by the Muhyi al-din Muhammad ibn Ali ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240); Cantor Judy Meyersberg enthralled the Indiana History Center audience with the ecstatic spirituality of "The Soul," by Moshe ibn Ezra, who died about 1138.

The program featured many opportunities to appreciate the control and flair of their instruments by Kay, Seligmann, and Mor.  The finale, an exuberant narrative hailing the birth of Abraham from the Jewish perspective, soared in the refrains — joined by everyone onstage plus some members of the audience. The first half had ended with similar exultation in a ballad, with oud, vielle, and recorder solos tucked in, of St. Basil's resistance to  threats by the Roman emperor known as Julian the Apostate. 

Apostasy comes in for divine retribution in all three faiths covered in this program. I wouldn't doubt that everywhere you look, you can find common themes in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but rarely outlined as entertainingly as in this concert.


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