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October 26, 2005

Connecting Three Faiths in Melodies of Devotion

New York Times:

Given the state of world affairs, you don't need to buy into Samuel P. Huntington's flawed "clash of civilizations" theory to concede that a bit more understanding among cultures could go a long way. In that vein, "Sacred Bridges," a concert on Sunday devoted to making connections among the music of three world faiths, pointed in a helpful direction.

Presented by Lincoln Center in the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, the concert united the King's Singers, a well-known men's a cappella group from England, and Sarband, a traditional Turkish ensemble making its New York debut. The program, conceived by Sarband's music director, Vladimir Ivanoff, featured performances of 16th- and 17th-century psalm settings by composers of different religions: Salamone Rossi (Jewish), Ali Ufki (Muslim) and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck and Claude Goudimel (Christian). A recorded version of the project was recently released on the World Village label.

Among the composers represented, the most fascinating case was Ufki, who started life as a Polish church musician named Wojciech Bobowski but was captured by Crimean Tartars and sold as a slave to the Ottoman court. He converted, changed his name and, among many other projects, translated biblical psalms from the French into Ottoman and transposed existing melodies into Turkish meters and modes.

The program wove all the various settings into a 75-minute tapestry, with the King's Singers and Sarband trading off not only individual psalms but sometimes even verses within the same psalm. The performances were first-rate, with the King's Singers' impressive tone, blending and control demonstrated most vividly in Rossi's ornate polyphony. Sarband's vocalist, Mustafa Dogan Dikmen, delivered the Ufki settings with great force and presence, and the rest of the ensemble offered virtuosic improvisations on instruments like the kemence (upright short-necked fiddle) and the nei (flute).

The program was warmly received, so I was clearly in the minority in thinking that despite its virtues, it did not entirely work. The challenge inherent in this project is that the commonality of the shared psalm texts is easily overshadowed by the huge musical differences. Perhaps each composer could have received his own portion of the program, thereby allowing the music to breathe and the differences to sink in. Instead, by interweaving the composers so tightly and eliminating any pauses for applause or silence, the program guaranteed that the ear was almost constantly shuttling among musical styles, among languages (French, Hebrew and Turkish) and - most jarringly - between Eastern and Western approaches to modes, tunings, vocal delivery and rhythmic meter.

More important, the all-in-one approach ran the risk of deracinating its sources in the name of its message of unity. This risk felt particularly acute when two whirling dervishes appeared in the wings and began spinning not only to the Turkish music but also to a French Goudimel setting. It was hard to see how a deeply rooted Islamic mystical ritual could retain much meaning when grafted onto Christian polyphony. "Sacred Bridges" would have been stronger if it worked more like real bridges, linking two points without erasing the distance between them.

Posted by acapnews at October 26, 2005 8:38 PM