SAVAE gave its first public performance in 1989 in the San Fernando Cathedral, and it quickly established itself as a leading interpeter of the music of colonial Latin America, in Spanish as well as Nahautl and other indigenous tongues. The group has toured widely throughout the United States, and its three CDs of early music of the Americas have met with critical and commercial success. But a funny thing happened on their way to a fourth; they succumbed to the sounds of the ancient Middle East. About two-and-a-half years ago, Christopher Moroney and his wife, Covita, SAVAE's general manager, traveled to Peru to gather material for a program of ancient Inca music. Soon after their return home to San Antonio, a friend, the Reverend Ann Helmke, loaned them a book that abruptly deflected their attention from Incan melodies to Middle Eastern incantations. The book, Prayers of the Cosmos, inspired them with the possibility of reconstructing the sacred music that Jesus might have listened to. Another book, pioneering musicologist Abraham Z. Idelsohn's multi-volume Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies, provided them with a vast, forgotten repertoire. But fascinated by these discoveries, Moroney struggled with the challenge of restoring Idelsohn's musical fossils to life. "The last thing I wanted to sound like," he explains, "is a group from Texas singing transliterations from Hebrew and Aramaic."
Hallelujah Kahlil Khalil, an Egyptian phonologist, came to the rescue. He moved in with the Moroneys, and for four months tutored them in the Quranic Arabic that developed near Babylon and that provides the closest approximation in pronunciation to the Hebrew and Aramaic spoken during the first century. "The coaching process," Moroney recalls, "was like Henry Higgins and Eliza Dolittle." An Austin rabbi, Monty Eliasov, also helped them with the languages, as well as with intensive study of early Judaism. SAVAE also recruited Theodore W. Burgh, a scholar at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in the ethnomusicology as well as the religious history of ancient Israel. The ensemble acquired its rare instruments from shops in New York and by mail-order from sources in the Middle East.
In principle, authentic early music must be experienced in live, acoustic performance. Monteverdi never composed for a recording session. To produce Ancient Echoes, SAVAE spent six arduous days in a studio in Chicago. They did not attach amps to their kemanche (a four-stringed spike fiddle), but they did make use of microphones. And because SAVAE consists of only seven performers - three men and four women - they overdubbed the men's voices three times to create the effect of 12 priests. To hear "Abwoon," an Aramaic setting of the Lord's Prayer, as the first Christians might have sung it, you had to have been there. But Ancient Echoes offers a plausible, and powerful, facsimile. Though the shofar (ram's horn) is not electrified, SAVAE's rendition of the traditional Jewish prayer "Shema Israel (Hear, O Israel)" is electrifying. The subtext to the group's efforts is a belief that a return to the musical roots of the three monotheistic faiths derived from Abraham might encourage precious amity.
Members of SAVAE all hold day jobs, which generally limits touring and concertizing to weekends. Their marketing staff is not extensive, which is why the new CD is more easily acquired online - at ancientechoescd.com or amazon.com - than in music stores. The challenge of the December 8 concert, when they will be performing Ancient Echoes before a live audience, is "to get the singing and playing to the point where we can do it at the same time and both play well and sing well," says Moroney.
SAVAE has not entirely abandoned its Latin American repertoire, which it will perform during some upcoming stops in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati. The group has also recorded the music for Discovering Dominga, a PBS documentary scheduled for broadcast early next year. SAVAE will probably eventually get back to the music of the Incas, but Moroney has not finished with Jerusalem, which he hopes to visit when the political situation is less perilous. "We've invested so much time with the repertoire of the Middle East that we'll continue with it," he said. "There is plenty more to choose from. The possibilities are almost unlimited."
Sunday, December 8
The Southwest School of Art & Craft
Coates Chapel, Ursuline Campus