East of the River was founded by recorder virtuosi Nina Stern and Daphna Mor, who met while performing J.S. Bach’s delicately scored Fourth Brandenburg Concerto. They soon discovered a mutual interest in Middle Eastern musical traditions, as well as Western medieval music, which, they point out, often sounds and feels Middle Eastern. Stern quips that the group’s name could be “East of the East River,” because both women and several of the band members are based in Brooklyn. For their second Ann Arbor appearance as guests of the Academy of Early Music, East of the River will include violinist Jesse Kotansky, percussionist John Hadfield, and Kane Mathis, who has mastered the Turkish oud.
Stern adds another dimension with her chalumeau, a predecessor of the clarinet that looks and sounds like a recorder fitted with a clarinet mouthpiece. She discovered the instrument through her work with historic woodwinds and used it to experiment with traditional music from countries like Armenia and Turkey, where, as she puts it, “the clarinet sound is beloved.” Mor doubles on an end-blown flute called a ney, and sings in Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, the endangered language spoken in her home when she was growing up in Israel. Because Sephardic Jews passed through so many lands over time, various Ladino dialects carry words from multiple cultures.
For centuries, ethnic groups with different languages, customs, and religious beliefs coexisted on the Iberian Peninsula. The word “Sephardim” designates Jews who put down roots in Spain and flourished among Christians and Muslims until the Catholic Inquisition forced them out.
East of the River’s program, “Sultana,” which will be performed at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor on October 8, traces the Sephardic diaspora in a musical arc from Arab Andalusia, Morocco, and North Africa through Turkey and Armenia into southeast Europe, where they lived in Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Bosnia.
Like the Ashkenazim of Central and East Europe, the Sephardim suffered greatly from Nazi Germany’s genocidal machinations during the Second World War. “Sultana” is dedicated to Mor’s great-grandmother, Sultana Magrisso. In 1944, she and her family escaped the Holocaust by fleeing Bulgaria, passing through Greece, Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon on their way to what was then called British Palestine.
Like everything they bring before the public, East of the River’s “Sultana” is intricately patterned with cross-cultural imprints. This fascinating little ensemble is a living testament to how ethnic diversity strengthens humanity.