Concert Blends European and Persian Music

Early Music Now presents Constantinople and Accademia del Piacere.

By - Apr 1st, 2024 06:22 pm
Constantinople and Accademia del Piacere ensembles. Photo from Early Music Now.

Constantinople and Accademia del Piacere ensembles. Photo from Early Music Now.

Early Music Now hosts Constantinople on Saturday, April 6 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Accademia del Piacere, a trio of viola da gamba players, will join them. Constantinople, guests of Early Music Now in 2015, is dedicated to early influences of Middle Eastern music around the Mediterranean. Accademia del Piacere focuses on the music of the Renaissance era with roots in Spain. Together they will present a program entitled From Seville to Isfahan, exploring the intersection of Persian and Renaissance music in 15th and 16th century Seville.

The Golden Age of Al Andalus, the period of Arab, Muslim rule in southern Spain in the 8th-10th centuries was arguably the only time in European history when Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived relatively peacefully together – and produced a common culture and harmonious society. This concert steps forward to the 16th century when the Spanish province of Andalusia was ruled by the Habsburgs, Christian royalty who also ruled the Netherlands, governed the Holy Roman Empire and held colonies in the new Americas. Inquisitions had pushed out most of the Jewish and Muslim population. Sephardic Jewish traditions spread throughout the Mediterranean as a result. While Muslim influences were also lessened, Muslim architecture and music continued to have an influence. This was a period when Renaissance-era classical music was influenced by exposure to the broad musical history within Spain.

The Constantinople ensemble features Persian instruments little known in the West. Persian music traditions were found around the Mediterranean, now centered in Istanbul as well as Isfahan. Artistic Director Kiya Tabassian plays the setar, a fretted plucked string instrument – a smaller cousin to the Indian sitar. Didem Basar plays a kanun, the most sophisticated of the family of instruments in the zither family. The kanun includes 26 sets of strings, with two or three in a set. The strings can be lengthened or shortened by raising or lowering the small latches placed under the strings. This allows the strings to be quickly re-tuned during performance to a wide variety of Arabic scales. The daf, a handheld drum, and other percussion instruments round out the ensemble. View closeups of Basar playing the Kanun in a YouTube from a Constantinople concert.

Accademia del Piacere features a trio of viola da gamba players on the cello-sized member of the da gamba family. The rich overtones of this instrument fit the meditative style of Renaissance music. You can hear that in a YouTube recording of a work by Giovanni Battista Vitali. Composers Alonso de Mudarra, Francisco Guerrero, and Luis de Narvâez were among those in the Spanish court influenced by Franco-Flemish traditions, especially as exported to Venice and other northern Italian cities. Today their music is largely played on a solo guitar, an instrument perfected in Spain. The ensemble also explores 16th-century Spanish music with more rhythmic elements such as a Fandango by Santiago de Murcia.

The concert will rarely remain within the comfortably familiar ambiance of austere Renaissance music. The concert intends to build a bridge between these musical cultures, recognizing that these hybrid interpretations were likely to be found in the courts and musical gatherings of Seville at this time.

An arrangement by Accademia del Piacere Artistic Director, Fahmi Alqhai, of “Si tus penas no pruebo y su slosa,” a work written by Renaissance composer Francisco Guerrero, creates a hybrid of two very different cultural traditions. After sampling a Renaissance work by Alonso de Mudarra, the ensemble will also play a Romansesca by Mudarra, that morphs from Rennaissance to thoroughly energetic Persian music. Rhythms may be complex in either culture, but they are distinctly different.

Is this a historically accurate performance? Tabassian asserts that musicians of the time had the “freedom to interpret in a different way depending on the time of the day, depending on the context where they were playing, if it was a court performance or it was a house performance. We are not there to show the music from a museum perspective. We are there to share historical music but with a very personal touch and personal approach.”

Tabassian recognizes certain patterns in Spanish Renaissance music. The rhythms may not be “that complex, but when we analyze some music from those manuscripts, from Cancionora del Palacio or Cancionero Colombina from a more Sevillian time, we find still some complex sub-rhythms that are these influences from Persian Middle Eastern music, which came to Spain through the Middle Ages period.”

Tabassian continues, “It’s very important to keep the roots alive, even if you are very much inventing. I mean, it’s like a tree. A tree grows up well in a different environment if the roots are the same, and the roots are well preserved. (When bridging traditions) each culture, each instrument has to keep its own strong vocabulary.”

Audience members may want to listen for the distinct patterns of Middle Eastern and Renaissance music and the inventions that connect the two traditions. This promises to be an energizing evening.

The concert begins at 5:00 p.m. Saturday, April 6 at the UW-Milwaukee Helene Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts at 2419 E. Kenwood Blvd. A pre-talk will begin at 4:00 p.m. Tickets may be purchased online or at the door. The sound will be great throughout the hall, but Tier One tickets ensure a closer look at the instrumentalists.

Early Music Now will close the concert season on May 18 at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church with guest artists, the Four Nations Ensemble. The concert Crossing Borders: Italian & French Masterworks will explore the synergy between courtly French music and emotionally charged Italian music. This program showcases impassioned works by Antonio Vivaldi, François Couperin, Jean-Philippe Rameau, George Frideric Handel, and Antonio Caldara.

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