The mass diaspora that resulted from the infamous edict by Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella (remember them?) in 1492 expelling all Spanish Jews who refused to renounce their faith and convert to Catholicism spread the Ladino tradition of the Sephardic Jews throughout the Mediterranean.

These highly evocative songs of the Sephardim later took root in the soil of more hospitable cultures, especially that of the Ottoman Empire, thereby preserving for posterity music that existed only in oral form and would otherwise probably have been lost to history.

It was that rich and colorful body of Sephardic songs, dances, ballads and prayers — mingling the cultures of Jews, Christians and Muslims living in coexistence before the expulsion (later to incorporate Middle Eastern musical influences) — that the Newberry Consort celebrated in the first program of its 31st season, heard Sunday afternoon at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago.

“Sacred Love — Songs of the Sephardim” offered aural rewards of many sorts. The Newberry musicians are masters at making early music feel astonishingly fresh and involving. The nine instrumentalists and singers introduced the audience to compelling little tales of courtship and exile, songs of faith and family, funny ballads and wistful laments. The program painted a vivid portrait of secular and sacred everyday life in medieval Spain and beyond, at once Iberian and Middle Eastern in flavor.

Projections of manuscripts and period artwork accompanied the performance. In music and imagery, the sadness of exile from a land the Sephardim had called home for 1,500 years was never far off.

The concert was led by guest curator and performer Nell Snaidas — a captivating storyteller and crystalline singer in everything she sang — and co-presented by the Newberry Library’s Center for Renaissance Studies and the Spertus Institute. Along with consort directors David Douglass (playing vielle and rebec) and Ellen Hargis (voice and guitar), the worthy instrumentalists and singers included Matthew Dean, Eric Miranda, Lucas Harris, George Lawler, Ronnie Malley, Shira Kammen and Daphna Mor, playing lutes, guitars, recorders, flutes and small drums.

Much of the music’s piquant appeal derived from its catchy rhythms and shifting pulses, often with duple and triple meters combined (as in a traditional Arab-Andalusian poetic song); from its prayerful fervor (the Hebrew liturgical song “Lecha Dodi”); and from the melodic charm of such domestic vignettes as a mother’s sternly lecturing her innocent young daughter about the wicked ways of men.

Everything was executed with a stylish exuberance so infectious that audience members gladly sang and clapped along.

The Newberry Consort season will continue with “The Passion of Abelard and Heloise” in February and a program of early 17th-century Italian vocal-instrumental music in April.

POSTPONED: April Fundraiser

Dear Valued Patrons,
We regret to share that due to concerns relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have decided to postpone our April 19th fundraising event, Ecco la Primavera. We expect to reschedule this event for a weekend between July and September – stay posted! Please know this decision does not reduce the Newberry Consort’s need for your support. Indeed, now more than ever, we hope you will consider making a tax-deductible donation to help us not only minimize the losses from this postponement but also contribute to our future events.

If you currently hold a ticket for this event, refunds are available upon request. Otherwise, the cost of your ticket will be applied to the rescheduled event. If you are a current ticket-holder for this event, Consort General Manager Hannah De Priest will be in touch with you directly very soon.
You can always donate to the Newberry Consort online  or via check. Our mailing address is The Newberry Consort, P.O. Box 60212, Chicago, IL, 60660-0212. Please reach out to manager@newberryconsort.org if you have any questions or leave a message at 773-669-7335 and one of our staff will be in touch with you.
We appreciate your understanding and very much look forward to welcoming you to Newberry Consort concerts in the future. Till then, wishing you all good health and safety in these uncertain times.