Dating from the 13th century, "Cantigas de Santa Maria" (Songs to the Virgin Mary) are no musty antiquarian oddities. At least, not in the care of the Boston Camerata, the Camerata Mediterranea and the Sharq Arab-American Ensemble on Sunday at UCLA's Royce Hall.
Introduced drolly from the stage by Joel Cohen, who directs both cameratas, these vernacular Spanish songs, collected and preserved at the court of Spanish King Alfonso X (1221-1284), are lively folk songs and dances refitted with Christian texts; the music has roots as well in Islamic and Jewish Iberian traditions.
The "Cantigas" tell stories of miracles wrought by the Virgin Mary -- a corrupt judge given one last chance, a simple monk who sprouts five glorious roses from his mouth. They also included praise songs.
Singers Hayet Ayad, Anne Azema, Equidad Bares and Lynn Torgove separately and in various combinations told the stories as vivid, fresh, almost gossipy events.
The singers were supposed to be accompanied by the Andalusian Orchestra of Fez, Morocco, but only that ensemble's leader, violinist Mohammed Briouel, got a visa. Cohen put him together with Boston's Sharq Arab-American ensemble, made up of Kareen Roustom (oud) and percussionists Boujourmaa Razgui and Karim Nagi Mohammed. One vielle (a kind of violin) player was imported from Britain, Hazel Brooks. Camerata members Cohen (lauta) and Shira Kammen (vielle) also played. The substitute instrumentalists, with just a week to prepare before the seven-city U.S. "Cantigas" tour, shined.