Dallas — What the Orchestra of New Spain does exceedingly well is, without question, research and curate. Artistic director Grover Wilkins III is skilled at bringing together a rich collection of music and providing historically and culturally engaging context. Such is definitely the case with the group’s performances of La Convivencia II last week, a celebration of music from the Iberian peninsula during the period between 711 A.D. and the end of the 14th century.
Known as “convivencia,” which translates from Spanish as “cohabitation,” this period was marked by a beautiful confluence of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities living and working together peacefully, resulting in a wealth of intercultural influences on art and music.
Featuring a panoply of Medieval instruments, the ONS collaborated with guest Michelle Alany, internationally known violinist and vocalist who specializes in Sephardic and Mediterranean soul music, and a group of world musicians led by the locally-based Jamal Mohamed.
The concert consisted of two halves, each divided into three distinct sets: Cantigas de Santa Maria, Sephardic songs, and Middle Eastern songs—a delightful combination of sacred liturgy, modern poetry, and traditional folksong traditions executed in a dynamic mix of languages, including Galician Portuguese, Judeo-Spanish, and Turkish.
With technical precision, this group of musicians showcased the energy and nuance of performance practices that can seldom be found elsewhere. Audience members were treated to expert demonstrations on exotic, historically accurate instruments like the oud (an Arabic lute), the vielle (a Medieval type of fiddle), shawms (a Renaissance-era wind instrument and ancestor to the oboe), the santour (Persian hammered dulcimer), and the baroque guitar.
Together, the troupe offered a robust mix of sounds, ranging from solemn and reverent to light and jovial. The use of the Karslima (a popular dance rhythm characterized by a 9/8 time-signature used frequently throughout the Middle East) was prevalent throughout, giving certain pieces an strikingly lively sort of bounce. Alany led the group on many of the folk-based pieces on violin and with vocals that were clearly tuned for this genre of music. In Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) and Turkish, she sings songs of love, cultural celebration, and traditional children’s songs.
In contrast, the Orchestra of New Spain’s four-part vocal ensemble, which featured two mezzo-sopranos (Katrina Burggraf and Kayla Nanto), baritone (Patrick Gnage), and bass (Joshua Hughes), offered thick and weighty tonality to the total sound. With Gregorian-like straight tone, they evoke an early-music sound that made the Cantigas de Santa Maria beautiful and poignant.
Jamal Mohamed and his group, which featured Mohamed on percussion, Jonathan Jones on woodwinds, Ehran Matoori on the santour, and Michael Nesuda on the oud and guitar, were exciting and invigorating to watch. It was clear that these musicians possess a love for the world music genre as they performed. Like a globally-sourced jazz ensemble, they provided audience members with rich Mediterranean tones and exciting Middle Eastern and North African dance rhythms.
Orchestra of New Spain’s mission is to introduce audiences to little-known repertory through the “exploration of the Hispanic heritage” and to “educate the public on the importance of the repertory and its cultural implications.” In this sense, the organization fulfilled its goals thoroughly with La Convivencia II this past weekend. In quaint and casual fashion, Wilkins invites audiences to partake in this obscure and fascinating genre of music and history at a time when most of us could surely stand to benefit from experiencing intercultural cohabitation and artistry. With all the rhetoric of ethnic and cultural divisiveness flooding the mainstream media these days, finding this nugget of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish cooperation was truly refreshing.