Last year marked the Newberry Consort’s 30th anniversary season. The city’s oldest early music ensemble—and the nation’s second oldest—showed no sign of losing momentum as they embarked on their fourth decade of scholarly music-making this weekend with a series of concerts entitled “Sacred Love: Songs of the Sephardim.” Guest curated by soprano Nell Snaidas, Saturday night’s performance at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center was an engaging examination of 16th-century songs that, as always with Newberry, came across as highly relevant to the present day.
By way of a prelude the concert opened with “Propiñan” from the Cancionero de La Colombina, a Spanish manuscript containing late fifteenth-century music. During this ominous instrumental prologue, the text of the 1492 Edict of Expulsion—which called for the expulsion of the Jews from Spain—was projected on a screen behind the players. The projections were the work of the astute musicologist Shawn Keener, whose compelling mix of supertitles, translations, and illuminated manuscripts have enormously enhanced past Newberry performances.
The rest of the program was organized into sets of songs that explored different aspects of the Sephardic repertoire. The first of these was “The Land of Three Faiths,” referring to the period between the Muslim conquest of 711 and the Jewish expulsion of 1492, when Christian, Muslims, and Jews, coexisted relatively peacefully on the Iberian Peninsula. This resulted a sort of cultural cross-pollination among the three creeds, which was evident in the selected works.
An amusing duet between Snaidas and Newberry co-director soprano Ellen Hargis on the relative merits of good lovers versus bad husbands was subtly choreographed and coyly delivered. Tenor Matthew Dean and baritone Eric Miranda’s “Rodrigo Martinez,” about a handsome but insane young man, was energetic and benefitted from the singers’ unified timbres.
A set entitled “The Spaniards,” ensued, which also evinced the multicultural influences of the first set. The opening lute duet between Lucas Harris and Ronnie Malley was gently affecting, and Miranda’s “Israel, mira tus montes” had an icy stoicism to it. Hargis gave a bardic rendition of “Paseábase el rey moro,” a retelling from a Muslim vantage of the Christian seizure of Granada. In this set and throughout the evening Daphna Mor provided characterful wind solos on recorders and shawm.
The first half closed with the two-item set “The Moors.” Nuba al-Maya B’tayhi convyed a hypnotic quality, and the whole consort gave a languid yet sultry rendition of the traditional “Lamma Bada.”
“Songs of the Sephardim” appropriately constituted the longest set of the evening. The bulk of the songs represented here addressed issues of romance, courtship, and marriage that are as germane to the human experience today as they were 500 years ago. Dean’s contributions were pure-toned and at times had an understated swagger. Snaidas lent a wistful air to “Morena me Ilaman,” and was ecstatic in “Scalerica de oro.”
The evening closed with the set “El Festival de las Luces.” Hargis’ rapid melismatic singing in “Siete hijos tiene Hanna” was poised and fleet, and Dean and Miranda gave an emphatic delivery of Psalm 30. The closing “Hazeremos una merenda/Quita ‘l tas” was vital, rousing, and rhythmically infectious, punctuated with an unhinged drum solo from George Lawler.