Voices high and low rise to the ceiling in a choral number that seems better suited for a cathedral than The Kennedy Center’s Family Theater. A woman clad in white dramatically recites “The Dark Night,” a poem by John of the Cross (1542-1591), in Spanish. Non-Spanish speakers turn to supertitles for help as the woman describes a relationship with a man who could easily be either Jesus or a lover.
The focus soon turns from Christian influences to Jewish ones, but these are no klezmer tunes.
Inspired by the coexistence of Islamic, Catholic and Jewish influences in Spain prior to the 1492 Reconquista (“Reconquest”), this multimedia program by PostClassical Ensemble is billed as a celebration of “seven centuries of a rich and thriving multicultural world on the Iberian peninsula.”
Iberian Mystics: The Confluence of Faiths is part of IBERIAN SUITE: global arts remix, a festival featuring visual art exhibits, film, concerts, theater and dance performances, literary discussions and more. Presented by The Kennedy Center in cooperation with the governments of Portugal and Spain, the festival puts the spotlight on Spanish and Portuguese speaking people, their cultures, global influence and impact around the world.
Angel Gil-Ordóñez, music director of PostClassical Ensemble, conducted the performance. “The philosophy of our ensemble is that we present classical music in a different way, in order precisely to attract an audience that doesn’t go specifically to classical concerts,” he says.
In addition to artwork that’s splashed across a screen, the performance features song, dance, poetry and passages from Spanish literature. The music falls into an array of musical styles, from Christian chamber music to Sephardic folk songs sung in Ladino – a mix of Hebrew and Spanish – to a series of six, short Sephardic songs arranged for soprano and chamber orchestra by the Spanish composer Joaquin Nin-Culmell.
There is also traditional Arab music and crowd-pleasing flamenco songs accompanied by a spirited dancer. Her heels punish the stage as she swishes the material of her tiered skirt. A trio of musicians cheer her on, shouting “senora!” as she stomps and claps, occasionally cracking a hint of a smile.
Even though he’s Ashkenazi and didn’t hear Sephardic music growing up, lute player and guitarist Howard Bass says he’s drawn to the music he’s played for more than 25 years. “I think it’s music that
people should hear,” he says. “It should be kept alive.”
Bass started playing with contemporary Sephardic singer and composer Flory Jagoda in the late 1990s. The Bosnian-born nonagenarian vocalist didn’t take to the stage last week, but attendees heard some of her songs performed by Bass and the other two members of Trio Sefardi, vocalist-guitarist Susan Gaeta and Tina Chancey, who played kamenj.
With the exception of one religious song, a prayer, the three Jewish musicians played folksy tunes, mostly about love. One number, “La Suegra Negra,” elicits giggles from the audience as it tells of a coldhearted mother-in-law who the speaker can imagine life without.
Prominent Spanish writer Antonio Muñoz Molina wrote the script with help from PostClassical Ensemble Executive Director Joseph Horowitz.
“Our idea was to stress how much Christian, Jewish and Muslim religions were culturally related and were culturally interconnected,” Molina says.
The program is divided into three parts, “The Christian World,” “The Jewish World,” and “The Islamic World.” But even with the separation of those sections, there is some blending.
In the final segment, a narrator tells the audience about the expulsion of the Moriscos—Muslims forced to convert to Christianity—in 1609. “Tellingly,” he says, “this 1609 event falls in between the first and second parts of Don Quixote – written by Miguel de Cervantes in 1605 and 1615.”
As the narrator explains, Cervantes came from a family of Jewish converts, people forced to choose between their religion and their homeland. He reads a selection from Don Quixote in which an expelled Morisco speaks of longing for Spain. The subject is Muslim, but could just as easily be Jewish.
“So in the end we were punished with exile, a mild enough penalty in some people’s opinion, but for me the most terrible punishment that could have been inflicted upon us,” he reads. “Wherever we are we weep for Spain; after all we were born here, and it is our native country. Nowhere have we found the welcome we long for in our misfortune.”
Molina says Cervantes “was really much aware of the silliness, of the stupidity of this purity of blood obsession, and throughout, all over Don Quixote, you’ll find references to this stupidity.”
“The expulsion was very much still in popular memory and you have at this time an orthodoxy of absolute control,” he says. “You have this character in a novel speaking in the first person and saying that ‘we are as Spanish as anyone else, because we were born here. This is our country, and in exile we never get any consolation because we feel in permanent exile.’ It was so heart rendering that I find it one of the key testimonies in Spanish classic literature.”
Molina says he wanted to show unexpected connections and defy stereotypes. He says the program highlights elements of Spanish culture that are rarely shown. “This shows you that we as a country have many more things to show for us than is usually thought,” he says.
Festival Co-Curator and Manager Gilda Almeida, director of International Programming, says the message she gets from the concert is one of tolerance.
“If you live in peace, the results that you get are so beautiful,” she says. “There was a time that it was possible, and it’s still possible.”
Festival Curator Alicia Adams, Vice President of International Programming and Dance, says the modern world seems to be “very upside down”. “It just seems that it’s not possible for people to live in harmony at all, and so I think pointing this out, that this did exist and can exist is really very important,” she says.