Specializing in music from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance using instruments of that time period, Musica da Camera opens its 2014-15 season by reprising a concert it originally presented in 1990.
Titled “A Voice Still Heard: Medieval Sephardic Music,” the hourlong program will present eight songs from the 12th through 16th centuries in three locales in New Orleans and on the north shore starting this Sunday.
St. Joseph Abbey Church in St. Benedict, just outside of Covington, will be the site of Musica da Camera’s season-opening concert at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28. It will be followed on subsequent Sundays, Oct. 5 and 12, at the Ursuline Chapel and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, both in Uptown New Orleans.
All MDC concerts throughout the season are free and open to the public.
Milton G. Scheuermann Jr., who founded MDC in 1966 and still co-directs and performs with the ensemble, and his longtime co-director Thais St. Julien recently spoke about the upcoming concert and their group’s plans for the coming season.
In addition to the Sephardic music concert, MDC will also present three Christmas concerts, “O Magnum Mysterium,” between Nov. 30 and Dec. 14, and three spring 2015 concerts titled “Maiden, Mother, Muse: Women in the Cantigas of (King) Alfonso X” between April 19 and May 3.
“Our season-opening program is identical to the one we presented in 1990 at Gates of Prayer Synagogue (in Metairie) but with the addition of two more pieces that weren’t performed then,” Scheuermann explained.
He noted that all of the compositions for which authorship can be attributed were composed by European Jews, particularly the Sephardim of Spain prior to their expulsion in 1492, as well as Jews from Germany, France and Italy.
Several of the songs were Jewish dances that were popular in the Middle Ages, Scheuermann said. Others were love songs with lyrics that are remarkably similar to song lyrics composed in much later centuries.
Musica da Camera (Latin for “music of the chamber”) has undergone numerous personnel changes over the course of its 48 previous seasons. The present ensemble consists of Scheuermann, Bryce Reveley, Joseph Darensbourg and Claudia Copeland on a variety of medieval instruments, and St. Julien, Darensbourg and Charlotte Pipes on vocals.
The program will open with “The Great Aleinu,” a 12th-century Jewish chant popular in synagogues throughout the Middle Ages and sung by Darensbourg. It will be followed by “Sanctus,” from Mass IX, a 14th-century Gregorian chant sung by St. Julien.
These opening two pieces will be followed by four traditional Sephardic songs sung by St. Julien, Darensbourg and Pipes.
Other works to be performed include duets, instrumentals and more traditional Sephardic songs.
The group’s musical inventory includes such exotic instruments as lutes, recorders, harps, harpsichords, hand-cranked hurdy gurdies and early forerunners of today’s brass and percussion devices. Most of the instruments were handcrafted by Scheuermann, following designs from old manuscripts and sculptures.
MDC also maintains an extensive archive of medieval/early Renaissance recordings, sheet music, instruments and other related items. Its collection includes more than 9,000 books and scores, thousands of CDs and more than 100 instruments.
Scheuermann and Julien have hosted the WWNO radio show “Continuum” every Sunday from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m., since 1976. It is the oldest continuous radio program in the United States that focuses on early music.
St. Julien, a soprano with an opera background, has been with MDC since 1974. “When you sing opera, there are too many people you have to take direction from,” she said. “So I told Milton, ‘We’ve really got to do this kind of early music because it’s so much fun.’ I really love it.”