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MUSIC REVIEW

Camerata blends cultural traditions to capture holiday's spirit

WELLESLEY -- Joel Cohen, music director of the Boston Camerata, compared the Mediterranean musical world of the Middle Ages to ''a beautiful Greek vase that exploded." The beauty came not only in the musical objects themselves but through the cultures that harmoniously created them: Christian, Muslim, and Jewish, living and working together in the court of Alfonso el Sabio, king of Spain. The task of the Camerata, Cohen said, is comparable to that of museum restorers who try to make all the scattered pieces fit together.

The Camerata's approach was to combine scholarship with ancient oral traditions that still exist in the Arabic world. Cohen assembled a cast of 10 that represented Western early-music specialists, singers, and instrumentalists trained in the Arabic tradition, including three members of the SHARQ Arabic Music Ensemble. The result was that a program of monophonic song from France, Italy, Spain, and North Africa was instructive, entertaining, richly varied, and inspiring.

There were four outstanding and vividly contrasted singers. Equidad Bares, of Hispanic ancestry, and Hayet Ayad, of North African descent, live and work in France and sing in folk-oriented traditions. Bares's voice has a piercing, haunting resonance, like a flamenco singer's; Ayad's is softer and rounder, and she excels in expressive ornament. Anne Azema is a French early-music singer who can move from angelic purity to down and dirty. Anne Harley is a Boston soprano whose repertoire ranges from early music to the role of Madame Mao in John Adams's ''Nixon in China"; her voice sounded especially lovely in this music. Several spirited narratives of miracles associated with the Virgin Mary used all four voices, alternating to delightful effect. One of them told of the redemption of a corrupt judge; Cohen dedicated it to ''all people in public life, without naming any names."

The expert instrumental ensemble included the English string player Hazel Brooks, Cohen, brass player Steven Lundahl, and three members of SHARQ: Karim Nagi Mohammed, percussion; Boujemaa Razgui, percussion and bamboo flute; and Kareem Roustom, Arabic lute and guitar. Razgui contributed some plaintive singing and playing; Roustom proved a sensitive and imaginative accompanist to the singers. Nagi Mohammed and Roustom propelled the rhythm section, which colored, punctuated, and buoyed the voices in a different way from accompaniments in Western music.

Interspersed in all of this were Christmas narratives from the Bible and the Koran, read in a variety of languages and accents, the words somehow familiar in every language. The whole program was a refreshing alternative to the canned, commercialized, over-arranged music that assaults us everywhere at this time of the year. This concert, full of reverence and joy, pulled us away from the values of Las Vegas and brought us a little closer to a stable in Bethlehem.

Boston Camerata
Joel Cohen, music director
At: Wellesley Congregational Church, Wednesday night (repeats tomorrow in the Hancock Church of Christ, Lexington)

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