Arts for All, Neighborhood Arts

Boston Premiere: Guy Mendilow Ensemble’s “Three Sides to Every Story”

Embark on a musical trek from bustling Mediterranean ports and resplendent Balkan capitals to communities shattered in the second world war and all but forgotten. Follow stories of orphan poets, vagabond queens and sailors lost to the sea, all set to spellbinding arrangements worthy of symphonic film scores. Wrap these tales up with lush choral harmonies and soulful vocals evoking Flamenco’s gutsiness set to heart-pounding percussion and intricate soundscapes.

Guy Mendilow Ensemble

On Saturday, March 11, the Guy Mendilow Ensemble invites you on this journey through the Balkans and Mid-East in the Boston premiere of “Three Sides to Every Story.” The program is a sonic adventure masterfully brought to life by the Guy Mendilow Ensemble, the world class quintet from Israel, Palestine, Argentina, and the USA, joined by the Boston City Singers. In a richly textured experience of haunting beauty, audiences are challenged with ironies and contradictions. What does it mean to encounter kindness and defiant hope — in Terrezin? To play children’s games between the air raids in the occupied Czech Republic? To travel through postcard-perfect landscapes while ghosts of nightmare pasts can still just barely be seen? In a semi-theatrical performance ranging from epic to irreverent, stories and songs in Ladino and English weave seamlessly to stir vignettes of struggle, courage in dark hours, and, ultimately, riotous celebration, reminding us that, indeed, there are at least three sides to every story.

The group will perform on Saturday, March 11, at the Salvation Army Kroc Center at 3pm in this free performance. Want to join us? RSVP to reserve your seats today!

So how did Guy Mendilow, the visionary behind the program, develop the concept of “Three Sides to Every Story?” He shares more background in his program notes below:

The final expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1491 and from Portugal in 1497 began migrations in which the Jews eventually settled in communities spanning the vast Ottoman Empire, from Northern African and the Mediterranean to the Balkans, and beyond. In each adopted home, languages, food, customs, stories, songs and musicality mingled and cultural and linguistic offshoots eventually evolved.

The language itself is a beautiful illustration of these broader patterns. Variously called Ladino, Spaniolit, Yehuditze, Hekatia, Saphardi or simply Spanish, the language is more like a number of closely related sub-streams, today grouped under the umbrella term Judeo-Spanish. To some extent, each community integrated words and expressions from the local language, including Greek, Slavic languages, Arabic, Turkish, and Hebrew. Wherever it is found, Judeo-Spanish is also a type of linguistic time capsule: The Spanish Jews preserved the lexis, syntax, morphology and phonology of Medieval Spanish as well as idioms, pronunciation and accent of words which have long since vanished from Spain itself. Judeo-Spanish is still spoken by pockets of Jews, today primarily in Israel, though it is considered an endangered language.

Three Sides to Every Story springboards off of songs mainly from the communities of Sarajevo and Salónica. The traditional source music is primarily from the early twentieth century, though the lyrics of a few of these songs are much older, even pre-dating 1492. While these older songs may well have been sung for hundreds of years, there is little evidence left to indicate the melodies and ornamentations used back then. The melodies that we know today are much more recent.

Guy Mendilow – Photo by Gretjen Helene

There is a spectrum between cultural curation, best described as an ethnomusicologically “correct” performance of songs from a particular time and place, and artistic creation, which can be regarded as an artist’s unique interpretation based on his or her personal aesthetics and experience. Artists working closely with traditional material from outside their own lived sphere have an added consideration: they almost invariably replace traditional cultural identity markers— like vocal timbre, ornamentation and tuning — with elements from their own background. This places an added responsibility for such artists in acknowledging where on the continuum between curation and creation they lie, and in identifying their aims in so situating themselves. In this case, it should be stated from the start that Three Sides to Every Story does not aim for ethno-musicological authenticity. While my creative process with these traditional Ladino songs does indeed begin with ethno-musicological field recordings, followed by research into the songs’ traditional function and context, it generally takes major turns.

Most of these songs were sung primarily by women, in the home or community events like weddings, unaccompanied except perhaps for a drum. The themes may be dark, but the songs were normally sung in a familiar way, without melodrama. My own next steps often lead me away from tradition, knowingly and deliberately. I ask compositional questions: “What can I imagine the mood of the story, or the emotions of some of the characters, to be, despite the traditional ways the song would have been sung? If it were a film, what could be the setting? Were I to create a soundtrack for this film, how would I use the musical tools available to me, and the expertise of the Ensemble members, to bring these tales, moods and emotions to life in a way that will be personally evocative and that will move audiences powerfully and emotionally?”

As a composer and student of culture I readily admit that it is risky to recast such rich traditional material this way. We leap from tradition into modern imagination. My hope is that the resulting arrangements bring the stories to life in a way that will be vivid and fresh for modern western audiences — and that through the emotional resonance created, these audiences will in turn also become interested in the musical legacy of communities that, sadly, were all but destroyed and whose traditions quickly fade in a rapidly globalizing world.

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