Andalusian Honey | Renaissance Players

Andalusian Honey | Renaissance PlayersHow sweet it is! Andalusian Honey. The name of the latest concert from the Renaissance Players and while one might take it that renaissance men and women are relatively thin on the ground, there were more than enough in evidence to substantially, if not densely, populate the grandiose environs of Sydney University's Great Hall, this evensong.

If you've a keen memory for such things, you might be aware that the RP has, itself, been a little thin on the ground, over recent years. This because of a flood in the university's music department, resulting in damage to numerous precious instruments and inevitable suspension of appearances. But all is well again, with irrepressible Associate Prof Winsome Evans (OAM, if you please, otherwise known as arranger and composer, Snave Pluckpayres) again taking the helm with her ear-catching assortment of instruments: harp, psaltery, shaum, portative organ and whistle.

I'll assume you've at least a general idea of what harp and whistle might entail, but that you might be more at a loss when it comes to, say, psaltery. Suffice to say it's a member of the harp family, but, perhaps, more akin to a zither. If you don't know what a zither is, look it up in your Funk 'n' Wagnall's.

The psaltery originally hails from ancient Greece, which means it's 5,000th birthday isn't so very far away; 'though I'm assuming Ms Evans has one of the newer models: an ipsaltery, perhaps.

Other key players include, of course, Llew Kiek, who fronts with gitern, chittara, oud and divan baglama. Yeah, it's pretty much all Greek to me, too. Well, not entirely: the gitern's a new-fangled thang, having been 'round the traps since the thirteenth century, brought to us from the wonderful people who brought us the Spanish Civil War. it looks a little like a lute, or mandolin.

James Wannan bows the rielles (at least one of which looks like the lovechild of a small guitar and violin) and rebec.

Special guest for this series of concerts is percussionist, Andre Lambkin who, essentially, bangs, thumps, shakes, rattles and rolls a number of clattering devices. By his side, doing similar things, is Gina Tedeschi.

Nicole Thomson and Jenny Duck-Chong provide the soaring vocals, to match the transcendent music. Thomson's versatile soprano can, apparently, wrap itself around any language or style and she performs with such depth of understanding and rich expression no translation is needed: talk about coloratura; and it comes in such a generous, theatrical package. Duck-Chong is more discreet in her vocal charms, with a warm timbre that's nothing if not comfort-food for the soul.  

Geoff Sirmai again reads poetry and MCs, in his characteristically mischievous and highly-entertaining manner, to say nothing of his glitzy costume.

All-in-all, I understand this is something of an extra-special lineup not seen or heard for many a year.

And what a repertoire! Medieval songs; dances; estampies; chaconettas; recitations. Estampies? Ah-huh. It's an instrumental form, also harking back to around the thirteenth century. In fact, since this concert has an Andalusian theme, linguistic correctness should probably have it as an estampida, which takes it into southern France and Catalonia, which better suits the Andalusian geographical connection.

The programme title indicates sweetness (from biblical times, as the Evans' meticulous notations point out, honey has symbolised the sweetness and goodness of life; and still does, for example, in Jewish Passover festivities), which is definitely present, along with a diversity of other spicy flavours that the Andalusian tag implies; not least the Moorish & Arabic associations emanating from just south, across the Strait of Gibraltar, in Morocco.

A significant part of the concert is devoted to Cantigas de Santa Maria; or Canticles of Holy Mary, which somehow sounds so much drier. It seems fitting, at the very time we've finally laid claim to our very own saint. But what in God's name are they? Well, very old manuscripts, written, intriguingly, in Galician-Portuguese, a medieval west Iberian romance language. (A Renaissance Players concert is nothing if not a history lesson.)

These are, consequently, reverent and lyrical songs which really only have to so much as mention the Holy Virgin to qualify under this high-folutin' nomenclature. All in all, they're made up of some 420 poems and all are 'monophonic', which refers not to the status of their fidelity, but simply means they're sung solo.

But don't think there's any bias towards the church, since this distillation of music brings together not only Christian, but Islamic and Jewish influences which, notwithstanding times of intense conflict and persecution, happily co-existed in Andalusia and elsewhere for the longest time; something not to be forgotten or overlooked in our own tumultuous and paranoid era, in which these big three religions, the peoples of the book, can tend to treat each other with such contempt and suspicion.

There is, as a side-order, a surfeit of Hebrew and Arabic poetry, as well as Sephardic songs in Judezmo, a language based on Old Spanish, but represented with Hebrew characters, lovingly preserved by Jews exiled in the Ottoman empire.

It's this melting-pot which makes the Players so enchanting and, I like to think, long-lived: it's an institution in itself, having been around since 1966. That's almost as long as that other medieval group, The Strolling Bones.

The festivities begin with one Abraham Cappon's Beloved Spain, a poem pregnant with the pain and longing of exile, (something Sephardic Jews, having been unceremoniously kicked out by the rotten royals, Ferdinand and Isabella, in 1492) weren't, to use classic and ironic understatement, altogether untouched by), as well as unashamed, unequivocal love for the mother country. At the very same time, it's tough stuff, bluntly calling a spade a shovel.

You, beloved Spain,
We call mother and,
During all our lives
We do not abandon
Your sweet language.

Although you exiled us
From your breast,
Like a stepmother,
We do not tire of loving you,
As the blessed earth,
In which our parents left
Their relatives buried
And the ashes of thousands
Who were tortured and burned.

Musically, proceedings get underway with the very first of the canticles (which is, in case you're wondering, really just a fancy word for a hymn) in question, evocatively entitled Des Oge Mais Quereu Trobar, in which a hauntingly brooding Arabic influence is unmistakable (albeit one almost inseparable from Judaic modes), even if the language in question is the lyrical Galician-Portuguese and the overarching mood solemn, restrained and reverent, in that polite, courtly way one might more readily associate with, say, English medieval music.

Interestingly, it's composition is attributed to Alfonso X (no relation to Mal), El Sabio (the wise), the 13th-century Castilian king, who had the perspicacity to recruit Christians, Jews and Muslims, in all manner of capcities, at his many and various courts. Essentially, it enumerates and richly praises the so-called seven joys of Mary.

From today, I wish to sing only to the Lady in whom God wished to become incarnated, to enable us to inherit eternal life.
And I wish to begin recalling how she was greeted by Gabriel: Blessed Virgen, behold, you are now with child, from God.
And I wish to recall how she went to Bethlehem and gave birth to Jesus and placed him in a manger, amongst animals.
And I wish not to forget how the angels sang 'Peace on earth' and how the three Kings came from foreign lands, over seas, to make their offering.
I also wish to relate what Magdalen told her about the angel at the door of the tomb, who had said that Christ had resurrected.
And I also wish to reveal the gladness she felt when she beheld her Son ascend to heaven, within a cloud.
I cannot fail to recount how both she and the Apostles received the grace of God, to enable them to preach.
And, for God's sake, I must not remain silent about how she was crowned, when her son chose to take her to heaven.

But don't be mistaken, don't be misled, amidst this rather dry, dreary and witless orthodoxy is a decent, or indecent, quotient of fart jokes and sexual allusion, as well as genuine sadness and aching beauty, liable to reduce the programme in your lap to a soggy document indeed. (Just wait till you wrap your ears and tears around Thomson's unaccompanied vocal a little later in the evening.)

In any case, the translations are sometimes of little more than academic interest: even absurdly tall tales of the deeds of the Virgen are rendered impossibly romantic, rather than merely ridiculous, by the wild, exotic, romantic sonority of Galician-Portuguese and the Mediterranean musicality emanating from the strange range of instruments. Moreover, Evans' retrospective compositional ventures are so sympathetic to medieval structures and modalities they can't really be distinguished from those actually of that time: there can be no higher compliment to her daunting expertise or scholarly diligence.

Another interesting characteristic of the lyrical content is the stylistic resonance of ostensibly Roman Catholic literature with rabbinic insights, so often rooted in the mystical aspects of language. This comes palpably to the fore in Entre Av' e Eva which, as the name implies, explicates the significant  and substantial difference between the palindromic, reverential salutation, Ave, and the name, Eva. As we learn, there is a great difference. For those who like to play with words and find linguistic concordances, regardless of religious symbolism, it's immensely satisfying.

In the end, to nominate choice cuts is like choosing between filet mignon and wagyu, or truffles, Beluga and champagne, but it's hard to surpass the lovely lyrics and melodies from Turkey, Greece, Salonika and Morocco. Any fans of Ladino savant Yasmin Levy will, I think, revel in the presentation of Nani Nani, for instance.

To do the whole menu justice, I'd be hear all afternoon, punching characters onto the screen and, very likely, if I allowed myself to succumb to the indulgence, very much longer. This, because the RP's repertoire opens very large windows, from which one can gaze, deeply and meaningfully, into history, visual art, spirituality, religious development

After an early music concert like this, you mightn't be quite so eager to consume later counterparts: it exudes charm and character which (call me controversial) can prove far harder to find in contemporary charts. You'll probably wanna whip out your doucaine and get your middle-aged groove on. Maybe you'll even frock-up, a la the Players.

Any Renaissance Players concert is enriching and rewarding, in a multiplicity of ways. This one's no exception. And don't assume you can't dance to it, by any means.

The Renaissance Players
Andalusian Honey

Venue: University of Sydney | University of Sydney
Date: Tue 19 Oct to Wed 20 Oct, 2010
Time: 7pm
Tickets: $35.00
Telephone: 02 9351 2222

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