Music of Sephardic Jews comes to Chicago

By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News

The Newberry Consort will present the music of the Sephardic Jews in Renaissance Spain at their first concert of the season, taking place Nov. 3 to 5 at Northwestern University in Evanston, the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago and at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.

Nell Snaidas, soprano.

Entitled “Sacred Love – Songs of the Sephardim” the program will include traditional songs of the Sephardic Jews at the time when they were exiled from Spain in 1492. The program will be curated by Nell Snaidas, an American-Uruguyan soprano who specializes in Latin American and Spanish Baroque music.

Snaidas has selected a wide range of music for the program, including Romances, ballads of love, loss and adventure, endechas (laments), Piyyutim (lyrical embellishments of prayers), and koplas, (strophic festival songs) – all of which will be sung in Ladino, the traditional Castillian language of the Sephardic Jews.

Ladino is the ancient language spoken by Sephardic Jews and is still spoken in pockets of the world. “It’s like Yiddish in that it’s a blend of two languages, Spanish and Hebrew,” said Ellen Hargis, co-artistic director of the Newberry Consort.

“You don’t always think of Jews as Spanish speaking, but the Spanish Jews, who were living in Spain for centuries spoke this language and retained it in the Diaspora,” Snaidas said.

“We will be singing Sephardic texts in Ladino, Hebrew and Spanish, experiencing it through a lens of 16th century Spain,” Hargis said.

This ancient storytelling will be brought to life through the musical sounds of voices, percussion, bowed strings (shawms), harp, Renaissance guitars and the oud (the Middle Eastern grandfather of the lute).

“You will hear very lively distinctive rhythms that you will immediately recognize as sounding Spanish and then you’ll hear certain melodies that sound Jewish or Moroccan,” Snaidas said. “It’s a beautiful hybrid of these two types of sounds and two genres, Middle Eastern and Spanish Renaissance.” The music was played from the 11th through the early 16th century.

The ensemble’s diversity reflects the nature of the Ladino language, which originated in Spain before the Inquisition and was spoken throughout Greece, the Balkans, Turkey, North Africa and beyond.

The concert will feature several renowned musicians including Snaidas, Hargis, voice and guitar; Daphna Mor, a Renaissance recorder player and singer who is of Sephardic decent; Shira Kammen, voice, harp, vielle (a predecessor of the violin) and violin; Lucas Harris, voice and lute; David Douglass, vielle, violin, viola de gamba; Ronnie Malley, oud, voice and percussion; George Lawler, percussion; Matthew Dean, tenor; and Eric Miranda, bass.

“What we really love about this program is it has huge amount of varieties, everything from laments to an ode to fallen heroes, the psalm of David to Hanukkah songs that celebrate the food and drink and the liveliness of the holiday, Hargis said. It includes a recipe on how to make doughnuts. There are songs of flirtation, a debate between a mother and daughter over the suitability of her daughter’s suitor. From everyday human experience to songs of faith, longing, sadness over having to leave their country after the expulsion. “It’s an amazing broad look at the lives of the people through their music.”

Hargis adds that a lot of the music is really toe tapping, exotic dance music and classical sounding melodies. “It’s just a lot of variety and entertainment in a repertoire audiences don’t get to hear very often in this historical point of view.”

Daphne Moore plays the recorder and sings. She is Israeli and is now a musician in residency at a synagogue in New York. She has pursued a career in early music, medieval and baroque and Jewish liturgical music. “For me, I feel spiritual in this genre as my first language is Hebrew. Ancient Hebrew connects directly to my soul.”

“It’s an interesting combination of musicians with various specialties,” Snaidas said. “Everyone is interested in becoming conversant in each other’s styles. The project is looking at the intersection of all these different cultures.”

Oud player Malley is a Chicago native of Palestinian descent. “Three Abrahamic religions coexisted for a long time. The music that came out of it was growing together,” he said. “I love that you can find the traces of the coexistence through the music theory, but more so the poetry, which is mainly in Ladino. It also provides evidence of Arabic and Turkish words being used in the songs.”

The Jews, Christians and Muslims were all living in relative harmony before the expulsion from Spain, Hargis said. “So they were playing each other’s instruments and borrowing musical traditions and singing in each other’s languages,” Hargis said. “The program reflects that.”

For the first time, one of the concerts will be held at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, located at 610 S. Michigan Ave.

The program will have projected super titles and artwork, not just a translation in the program book.
“People can sit back and relax, watching the music and the text at the same time,” Hargis said.

The program is presented in partnership with the Newberry Library’s Center for Renaissance Studies Mellon Conference on Religious Change.

“Sacred Love – Songs of the Sephardim”
Friday, Nov. 3, 2017 at 8 p.m. at Galvin Recital Hall at Northwestern University in Evanston
Tickets: $40-$50; Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017 at 8 p.m. at Logan Center at the University of Chicago
Tickets: $40-$50; Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017 at 3 p.m. at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. Tickets: $50-$60. Pre-concert chats start 30 minutes before each performance.

To purchase tickets visit www.newberryconsort.org.

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