What did Jesus hear?
While nobody knows for certain what music sounded like in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, members of the San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble have devoted years to researching and rehearsing the music of the ancient Holy Land.
SAVAE, which will be in concert tonight at Rosary Cathedral, uses ancient instruments and languages to perform sacred music from Jerusalem's Second Temple, which was built around 540 B.C.
The seven-member group was founded by Covita and Christopher Moroney, who met while they were studying jazz at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston in the mid-1970s.
“Christopher grew up in Boston and I went to school there, and there were a number of ensembles in the area that played ancient music,” Covita Moroney said in a recent interview. “That's how it came into our radar.”
The Moroneys, who moved to San Antonio, Texas, in the early 1980s, first were interested in Renaissance music and began focusing on earlier eras.
Ms. Moroney said there are different theories about the music of ancient Jerusalem, but she and Christopher are convinced that Abraham Zvi Idelson, an early 20th century musicologist, unlocked much of the mystery.
“In the early 1900s, when Jews were first returning to Israel, or Palestine at the time, Idelson literally would hang out at the train stations and the docks and ask the people who were arriving to sing their traditional melodies and their synagogue melodies,” Ms. Moroney said.
“In just a few years, he recorded 10 huge volumes of melodies, which were published in 1920,” she said.
“He found that there were common musical phrases among the Jews from Turkey, Poland, Yemen, Spain, Morocco, Iraq - from wherever they came - even though they had had no contact with each other for over 1,900 years.”
Mr. Idelson and the Moroneys believe the musical themes were similar because they were learned in ancient Jerusalem before the Jews fled to other regions of the Earth in the 1st Century diaspora.
“Abraham Idelson's books are what got us kick-started,” Ms. Moroney said.
SAVAE uses modern reproductions of ancient middle-eastern instruments, including stringed instruments such as the oud, kinnor, kemanche, and rababah, wind instruments such as the mijwiz, shabbabah, and shofar, and percussion instruments such as the riqq, tziltzal, and zils.
“In our travels, we have found that there are a number of companies that manufacture reproductions of ancient instruments,” Ms. Moroney said.
“Percussion instruments are easy to find, but the string instruments are not so easily available.”
The group also has spent hundreds of hours studying ancient languages, including a Babylonian dialect of Arabic from Egyptian phonetics teacher Hallelujah Khalil Kahlil, Aramaic from a Sufi Murshid, and Arabic chants from a sheik in the West Bank.
The ensemble released a 16-song CD last year titled “Ancient Echoes: Music from the Time of Jesus and Jerusalem's Second Temple,” on the World Library Publications label.
In Toledo, SAVAE will perform a song that includes an English recitation from the Qur'an, the Islamic holy book, and an instrumental Islamic piece, Ms. Moroney said.
The San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble will be in concert at 8 tonight in Rosary Cathedral, 2535 Collingwood Blvd. Tickets are $15 at the door ($7 for students and seniors). A pre-concert lecture will be given at 7:15 p.m. Information: 419-244-9575.
- DAVID YONKE