The Ivory Consort, Indianapolis Arts Center, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA (July 27, 2003)

"If you want a seat, you'd better get in there!"

So I was told as I bought my ticket, and it proved to be true. I grabbed a seat in the back, one of the few remaining, and the other empties soon filled. The Ivory Consort offered up a program of medieval Spanish music, closing out the 2003 season of The Indianapolis Early Music Festival. Titled "Music In The Land Of Three Faiths," the program presented music, both religious and secular, from the Islamic, Sephardic Judaic, and Christian traditions, demonstrating the differences and (more often) the similarities between the three.

Musically and visually, The Ivory Consort gave a dynamic performance. Saz player Gerard Edery often stood to sing, using sweeping hand motions like a preacher. Margo Gezairlian Grib (vielle) also often stood while singing. Actually, "standing" is a tame description; she swayed, twisted, and undulated. Frequently, both Grib and Edery appeared to be on the verge of breaking into full-fledged dance. For that matter, so did more than a few members of the audience. Jay Elfenbein (vihuela d'arco, vielle, rebab) stayed in his chair, but kept his head in motion in the manner of many cellists. Dennis Cinelli (mandora, saz) bobbed in his chair while playing his loud little instrument. In contrast, percussionist Rex Benincasa leaned back casually in his seat, drum cradled in his lap, and oud legend George Mgrdichian sat stock-still, except for his hands.

The music sounded like a blend of various Middle Eastern styles and European Early Music, with a wild, improvisational nature. At least one piece made me think of bebop jazz; in between ensemble renderings of the melody, each member soloed in turn.

The Sephardic ballad "El Rey Por Muncha Madruga" was alternately recited in English and sung in Ladino, verse by verse. The song tells of king who catches his queen in adultery — "soon you will be wearing a dress stained with a red necklace". Edery and Grib faced each other as they performed another Ladino song, "Porque Llorax Blanca Nina," a lovers' farewell.

At the end of intermission — in fact, people were still milling in the aisles— the Consort, sans drummer, took their seats and picked up their instruments. A moment later, Benincasa ambled in from the wings, singing the "Muezzin's Call To Prayer" in a piercing tenor. The group then segued into a Jewish religious song, "Ein Keloheinu." The Arabic states "God is most great ...come to prayer...," while the Hebrew similarly says "Praise ye our God, praise ye our Lord...." This was followed by one of the Cantigas de Santa Maria. Did the music sound like this in the court of Alphonse the Wise? Lucky Alphonse, if so.

Who expected this to be so much fun? As I was walking to the parking lot, I heard two different people make the same statement. "It was hard to sit still." Indeed.

[Tim Hoke]

For more information on The Ivory Consort, look here.