In Alexander’s Memory, Music on the Ceng, Oud, Ney, and Saz

Detail of the Alexander Mosaic, representing Alexander the Great on his horse Bucephalus. (Image: Wikipedia/public domain)

For the second time in a couple of weeks, the ancient instrument known as the angular harp has appeared prominently on a local stage. We heard the kugo, as it’s known in Japan, at SAAM, and (in a different design but clearly still the same instrument) the ceng from Turkey in the unusual program brought by The Boston Camerata and Dunya at Town Hall Saturday night, under the auspices of the Early Music Guild. The two ensembles collaborated in a performance of words and music commemorating Alexander the Great.

In several sections performed without intermission, the program used words of prophecy and commentary from the Book of Daniel to the 17th century, from Turkey and Greece (such as Plutarch) to France, England, Italy, (such as Alexandre de Paris and Thomas de Kent), some read, some sung, in a variety of languages. The music didn’t originally go with the words. The two groups chose excerpts which fit the style and the dates from classical Ottoman or Turkish music, Sufi music, and chant from Koranic, Hebrew, Byzantine, Gregorian, or Greek origins, while some of their performance was improvised in typical fashion.

The whole came together in a hypnotic and fascinating evening of music and style relatively unfamiliar to many in the West. It covered Alexander’s rise, his far-reaching education at the behest of his father, his prowess in battle and as a lover, marvels associated with him, and finally his death.

Anne Azema, voice and artistic director of The Boston Camerata described a couple of the segments in English, but it would have helped if she had had a microphone as, unlike her singing voice, her speaking voice was too soft to reach clearly to the back of Town Hall.

With her came vielle and harp player Shira Kammen and guest Tom Zajac, who played endblown and transverse flutes, recorders, shawm (precursor of the oboe), psaltery and zither. Dunya, a Turkish ensemble based in Boston, included its cofounders, Robert Labaree, playing the ceng and tambourine, and Mehmet Sanlikol, singer and player of the oud (Middle Eastern lute), ney (an endplayed flute) and saz (a small-bodied, long-necked plucked instrument), as well as drum player Cem Mutlu.

To those who have attended performances by Cappella Romana in their regular visits here, the singing style would have been familiar; how it emphasizes, its long melismatic phrases, and the way the singer comes to the note from underneath. Sanlikol and Azema were the lead singers, but all the performers joined in at times particularly in rhythmic sections.

Some of the fascination with this program came from the many different instruments, their sound, their place in the ensemble, and how they were played. Labaree, on the versatile ceng, could make subtle and temporary pitch changes on a string to give characteristic sliding micro-intervals. Its usually delicate sound was often in the background but it could be louder as needed. With Zajac, it was a question of what instrument he would pick up next.

Both the Camerata and Dunya are deeply versed in the historical and cultural backgrounds and styles of the music they play, not to mention being highly skilled musicians. Dunya often collaborates with other musical groups to bring the relationship of Turkish music with others to the fore. It would be a pleasure to have both these groups back in the future.