Dallas — It was as much an exercise in public discourse as anything else when the Orchestra of New Spain opened its season with La Convivencia. Last weekend marked the third installation of the series with performances throughout Dallas. As in past iterations, this celebration of intercultural cooperation was the result of collaborations between ONS, the Jamal Mohamed Ensemble, and guest artist Michelle Alany.
“Convivencia,” Spanish for “cohabitation,” refers to the 700-year period between the Eighth and 15th centuries on the Iberian Peninsula, when Christian, Muslim, and Jewish peoples lived in relative harmony. The result is a confluence of rich cultural influences made manifest in art and musical traditions. Convivencia III focused on the musical activities that have been traced to the end of this cohabitation period, with ONS artistic director Grover Wilkins 3D’s curation pulling from medieval Christian liturgy, pan-Mediterranean itinerant folksong, and Sephardic dialogue music.
From a musical standpoint, the technical precision of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, the set of selections gleaned from Christian early music records, shined with skill at the Sept. 26 performance, which was held at Zion Lutheran Church. The ONS singers and instrumentalists demonstrated a marked sense of effect and standard of the period, assumingly aided heavily by the fact that this music is the only bit to have survived in clear written form. With appropriate darkness and mellowed resonance of tone, the five-voiced ensemble rang with minstrel-like colors. Set against the unique particularity of period instruments in accompaniment—vielle, viola da gamba, and recorder—the overall sound was understated and effective.
In the Sephardic sections, led by solo vocalist and violinist Alany, the folksy charm of these songs was at times effective, but at other times a bit messy. In this setting, the coordination of the singers and players yielded active interpretations of the period from which the music comes, however there was a lack of cohesion that was distracting. Nevertheless, Alany embodies a passion and authenticity for the genre that translates into an effective level of engagement. Sung in Judeo-Spanish, a beautiful mix of the Iberian Romance languages with influences from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, these songs flowed with beautifully simplistic poetry and provincial charm.
The Arabic sections of the program were largely instrumental, provided by Jamal Mohamed and his three-part ensemble. Mohamed’s mastery of Middle Eastern rhythms and song structures was at the fore in these moments, where the improvisatory nature of his arrangements allowed ample room for demonstration and a celebration of the musical style. The hypnotic drive of the “karslima,” a quintessentially Middle Eastern dance rhythm, characterized much of these sections with undeniable quality.
The execution of this program swings wide between technical rigidity and free-flowing artistry. This is the charm and magic of Wilkins’ Convivencia. Moreover, the relevance of the time period this program champions carries with it a narrative that begs to be heard amidst our current societal climate. Here, the ONS through their collaborative efforts continue to strive to dust off the dusty, academic interpretations of what “world music” is. And, when blended smartly with expert knowledge of early music in the Western canon, they managed to bring the period into a starkly modern reinterpretation with pointed purpose.