Before their expulsion from Spain in 1492, Sephardic Jews kept their religious practice, including their music, mostly hidden. Three centuries later, Spain’s Gypsies performed flamenco in private rituals. Deemed illegal, both flamenco and Ladino traditions were passed orally from generation to generation in Spain before spreading across the world.
"Flamenco and Ladino music really do come from the same place," says conductor Jeffrey Eckstein. "If you listen to flamenco pieces and then to Ladino pieces, they remind you of one another."
Eckstein has linked the two musical traditions in Flamenco Sephardit, a concert at Miami Beach’s Temple Emanu-El on Sunday.
Eckstein typically conducts classical music, but he fell for flamenco when he heard legendary guitarist Vicente Amigo in Barcelona. "I said, ‘What is this? I feel the music in my soul!’ ”
The feeling stuck when he returned to the United States. Eckstein, who lives in New York, often travels to South Florida to conduct the Miami Lyric Opera. When in town, he attends services at Temple Emanu-El in Miami Beach, where he struck up a friendship with Rabbi Marc Philippe. Inspired by the coming-together of Hispanic and Jewish traditions in Miami, Eckstein proposed the concert to him.
To represent flamenco, Eckstein has enlisted dancer Celia Fonta, who is also Jewish. Her guitarist-husband, Spaniard Paco Fonta, will perform with classical and flamenco guitarist Michel Gonzalez.
Eckstein believes that adding classical elements enhances these folk forms, so he has included cellist Rosanna Butterfield and violinist Derek Powell from New World Symphony — and Rabbi Philippe himself, who trained in Paris as a classical singer, as well as a cantor.
"The cello and the violin will make the sound fuller," Eckstein said in a telephone interview.
Rounding out the ensemble is mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock, who has released an album of Ladino songs using the artistic name Aviva. Entitled Songs for Carmen, the album is a tribute to the mythical Gypsy in Bizet’s opera. (Many scholars believe Carmen was inspired by the legend of La Petenera, a beautiful Jewish woman who ignited passions in men and was ultimately murdered by a jealous suitor.)
Eckstein hopes to capture the passion of both traditions by adapting Ladino melodies to fit the structure of flamenco.
"For example, we took a Ladino song and combined it with a Sevillana, or a Soleá," he says, referring to flamenco styles that are distinguished by specific rhythmic patterns. "So they start becoming one piece of music, and all from the same place and origin in Spain."
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