Transcendence and Lessons from Schola Antiqua

United StatesUnited States The Suspended Harp: Sounds of Faith of Medieval Jerusalem: Nell Snaidas (soprano), Amro Helmy (oud), Schola Antiqua of Chicago. The Cloisters, New York City. 23.10.2016. (KG)

A French monastery would seem an unlikely musical setting for a concert of vocal music from Jerusalem circa the first part of the second millennium BCE, but when the singers are the fine Schola Antiqua ensemble from Chicago, and the monastery is the building transplanted to upper Manhattan by Nelson Rockefeller, all bets are off.

Held at the Cloisters, a satellite of the Metropolitan Museum, the concert was a complement to the Met’s current show, Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven. Like the exhibit, the music sought to portray early Jerusalem as an international city with people of different heritages and faiths, living and working alongside one another.

From the outset, Schola Antiqua depicted that with overlapping prayers. The eight singers were positioned in different spots on the staging area, alone or in small groups, facing different directions—resonant and disjointed with a choir bell to complement the street scene.

Amro Helmy, one of the vocal ensemble’s two guests, then picked up his oud to sing an Islamic chant alone—quite beautifully—before guest soprano Nell Snaidas and the male voices of the ensemble sang “Mi-al har horev,” one of the oldest surviving Jewish chants, which was also the inspiration for Lukas Foss’s 1975 choral work Lammdeni.

Another contemporary composer was brought to mind in this mix of devotional singing: Osvaldo Golijov and Ayre, his wonderful meditation on multi-cultural Jerusalem (recorded by Dawn Upshaw in 2005). But in the Cloisters concert, the sources weren’t updated; listeners were firmly in the past, in the building, and in the music.

Beautiful, soft, wordless passages from the singers, with a repeated bass note from the oud and a quick tambourine rhythm for the full ensemble, ended with a rousing final verse—so joyous it was difficult to respect the request that applause be held to the end. As Snaidas grew animated and the wind outside pushed against the heavy wooden door (gusts of as much as 40 miles per hour had been predicted) it was easy to get lost in time.

“Qui confidunt in Domino,” composed in the 17th century by Kryštof Harant and “Ne irascaris domine” (1589) by William Byrd were the only pieces on the program with known composers. The former was also the only one for the singers alone; the warm beauty with which their voices blended, abetted by the soft resonance of the stone room, was astounding. Snaidas sat to the side, eyes closed, head nodding, a soft smile on her lips, then joined them for the Byrd and a closing prayer led by Amro, which eventually included the full audience.

The concert was wonderful but not without a purpose, and came with a moral, seemingly quite intentionally. The contested land once known as the “City of Peace” has been home to people of many different customs and faiths. They got along—if not perfectly well then at least by necessity, better than today. There’s a lesson to be learned.

Kurt Gottschalk

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