American Choir and Andalucian Traditional Ensemble Join Forces to Mesmerizing Effect

by delarue

One of the most fascinatingly original large-ensemble albums of recent months is Words Adorned, the cross-pollinated collaboration between Philadelphia chamber choir The Crossing and traditional Andalucian group the Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble, streaming at Navona Records (click the link and scroll down to the listen button on the left). Donald Nally conducts; the lyrics are in Arabic.

While the tradition of audience singalongs in Middle Eastern music goes back thousands of years, there’s never been an album quite like this: a choral group fond of concept albums with music by contemporary composers joining forces with a starkly dusky, often rustic maqam ensemble. The closest comparison is the Navatman Music Collective, who bring harmony to new Indian music, another otherwise completely harmony-less idiom. Which is not to say that the music here always employs harmonies, but when it does, the effect is striking.

There are two suites on the album. The first is Kareem Roustom‘s new settings of ancient poetry, titled Embroidered Verses, packed with unexpected diversions and false endings. The opening song is Oh People of Andalucia, What Beauty You Have, where suspenseful ripples and flurries from Wassim Odeh’s oud and Hicham Chami’s kanun are quickly joined by the choir. A fleeting, bracing rise from Hanna Khoury’s violin and Kinan Abou-afach’s cello at the end will give you goosebumps.

The second number, a drinking song, begins with a surreal, strutting riff before the chorus and instrumentalists kick in over a jaunty clip-clop rhythm fueled by Hafez Kotain’s percussion. The mix of baroque counterpoint and Arabic maqam modes is surreal, to say the least.

The third segment, a setting of a love poem by Umm Al-Kiram has a gentle, lilting motion, tantalizing accents from the strings, an even more tantalizing Khoury solo and breathtaking contrast between her shivery lines and the crescendoing power of the singers. The bellicose finale begins with a mysterious pulse from the strings, the men of the choir anchoring the most rhythmically complex and harmonically enigmatic interlude here. This time it’s the kanun rippling through the mix which provides the extra bite.

The second suite is Abou-Afach‘s Of Nights and Solace, a collection of poems that begin at sunset and wind up at the break of dawn the following day. Soloist Dalal Abu Amneh‘s assertively articulated soprano blends within an increasingly complex contrapuntal web in the opening prelude, Moonrise.

She brings a visceral sense of longing to the second song, Greet These Faces, over a slinky, gorgeously bittersweet, glittering backdrop, the choir echoing and doubling the melody line: it’s the most hypnotic track here. As you would expect, Forsaken is more desolate, stark and ghostly, the choir using a vast sonic and dynamic range as they rise from basso profundo lows.

A lively but understated instrumental mix of flamenco and dervish dance sets up You Who Left and Passed, blending the playful and the plaintive, spaciousness giving way to robust density. The two groups pack a wild blend of ideas into the rousing, barely two-minute concluding sunrise tableau.

Abu Amneh and the takht ensemble wind up this late-2019 concert recording with When He Appeared, a brisk, stately, haunting song utilizing text by Muhammad Abd Al-Rahim Al-Maslub. It’s rare that music this cutting-edge is just as unselfconsciously beautiful.