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.