Thursday, May 23, 2013

The "Profeti della Quinta" ensemble at the May 2013 Abu Gosh Festival

One of the closing events of the May 2013 Abu Gosh Festival on May 18th was by the “Profeti della Quinta” vocal ensemble in a concert titled “Behold, thou art fair, my love” in the Kiryat Yearim Church of the Ark of the Covenant in the village of Abu Gosh (Jerusalem environs). Members of the ensemble are Doron Schleifer and David Feldman-countertenors, Dino Lüthy and Dan Dunkelblum-tenors and Elam Rotem-bass, harpsichordist. Joining them was their lutenist Ori Harmelin. The program focused on the subject of love.

The “Profeti della Quinta” ensemble was originally established in the Galilee region of Israel by Elam Rotem.  Currently based in Switzerland, where all members have been studying at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, the group focuses on repertoire of the 16th and early 17th centuries, basing interpretation on research into performance practice of the time – on temperament, diminution, ornamentation and on playing from facsimile editions. The singers perform a-cappella, also collaborating with instrumentalists and additional singers, when required.

Prior to moving to Basel, Elam Rotem (b.1984) graduated from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance where he studied harpsichord under Dr. David Shemer. At the Basel Schola Cantorum, he furthered his studies in early musical style and performance practice. Rotem is presently researching early Italian opera in a collaboratary PhD program of the Schola Cantorum and the University of Würzburg.

The Profeti della Quinta group have performed and recorded works by the Mantuan Jewish singer, violinist and composer Salamone Rossi (1570-1630) – the first Jewish musician to compose, perform and publish polyphonic settings of synagogue liturgy for mixed choir - and have been involved in a film on him by Joseph Rochlitz – “The Search for Salamone Rossi”(2012). At the Abu Gosh concert, the ensemble performed a number of Rossi works, both sacred and secular. The composer’s sacred works “Hashirim Asher Lishlomo” (The Songs of Solomon), using Hebrew texts, consist of 33 a-cappella motets, including Psalms, hymns and prayers for the Sabbath, holyday services, concerts and for one wedding; they were published in 1622. Departing from the ancient tradition of Jewish chants, Rossi, however, brought harmony and polyphony into the synagogue, composing in the current styles of European music but in a more homophonic manner in order to give the verbal text prominence. The Abu Gosh Festival program opened with Rossi’s setting of Psalm 128, in which there was much bandying of key words, its last section joyful and quite contrapuntal. Following a richly dynamic reading of Psalm 100, we heard the ever-popular Rossi piece “Halleluja” (Psalm 146) in a silky-timbred, well shaped performance, its sweeping melodic lines gently ornamented. Rossi’s “Kaddish”, composed to an unexpected triple-time dance rhythm, was dynamic and mellifluous in timbre. The Profeti singers performed Rossi’s sacred pieces in a strong, totally secure, intelligible style and with the understanding that comes from careful scholarship and familiarity with Hebrew biblical texts. The group’s signature brightness of timbre is always energizing, their reading- and interpretation of the pieces bristling with interest. One could claim that, performing these works with only men singers (and without instruments when performed in the synagogue), as would have been done by Rossi, their effect is indeed authentic. 

Although considered a conservative composer, Rossi was the first to publish madrigals with basso continuo parts; composed for the Gonzaga court, they are also groundbreaking in the elaboration he infuses into the chittarone parts.   Opening with a wonderfully colored performance of the composer’s madrigal to Ottavio Rinuccini’s “Sfogava con le stele” (One who was lovesick), the Profeti della Quinta singers performed settings of secular texts. From Rossi’s First Book of Madrigals we heard two songs to texts by Giovanni Battista Guarini: “Tirsi mio, caro Tirsi” (My Tirsi, dear Tirsi) opened with countertenor Doron Schleifer (singing of an abandoned woman) and Ori Harmelin in dialogue. Accompanied by Rotem (harpsichord) and Harmelin in “Pargoletta che non sai” (Little one, you do not know), Schleifer, Feldman, Lüthy and Dunkelblum, adding a little theatrical content and much humor to the concert, portrayed two couples confronting love’s tribulations. 

Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) “Filli cara e amata” (Dear, beloved Filli) presents a bucolic setting and the innocent games of nymphs and shepherds. In contrast, “Rimanti in pace” (Remain in peace), a feast of vocal sound, timbral colors and emotion, in the hands of the Profeti singers, is the heartbreaking plaint of the wounded and dying Tirsi as he laments with his sorrowful Fillida. We hear individual utterances, astonishing harmonic effects and a fine play of bass timbres. In “Zefiro torna e il bel tempo rimena", a dramatic, narrative piece with some homophonic blocks.  Singers and audience reveled in the piece’s rhythmic changes and daring final dissonances, the latter explained by the final line of Petrarca's text:

'Zephyr returns and with him fair weather,
And the fowers and grass, his sweet family,
And Procne's warbling and Philomel's plangent song,
And spring in all its white display.

The meadows laugh, the sky is serene;
Jove delights in watching his daughter;
Air and sea and earth are full of love;
Every beast tells itself to find a mate.

Yet for me, alas, return those heaviest of sighs,
Drawn from the depths of my heart
By she who has taken its keys to heaven;
And despite birdsong and fields of flowers
And the honest, gentle acts of fair maidens
I am but a desert surrounded by savage beasts.'

Ori Harmelin (b. Haifa, 1982) began his musical training at age 15, studying classical guitar and composition. He later studied lute with Isidoro Roitman and composition with Arie Shapira. In 2003, Harmelin moved to Germany to study lute with Professor Rolf Lislevand at the Trossingen Music Academy. Providing the Abu Gosh concert with a poignant instrumental interlude on the chitarrone, Harmelin performed a Passacaglia by the illustrious Italian lutenist and composer Alessandro Piccinini (1566-c.1638). Despite its gentle sound, Harmelin has a flowing command of the instrument; in playing that was forthright, his melodic lines were expressive, singing and articulate. His playing of this complex material revealed its deep beauty and grace. 

Moving more than 300 years forward in time, yet remaining in the same style, we heard the premiering of some of Elam Rotem’s most recent compositions. Rotem himself preferred to describe the event as a pre-premiering! Since completing his “Joseph and His Brothers” (to be issued on CD in 2014 on the Pan Classics label), a work using the biblical Hebrew text, that has  impressed and moved audiences in Europe and Israel, Rotem is now in the process of setting some new shorter texts, several of them from the “Song of Songs”. These recent pieces will exist both as separate songs and as a group. In his opinion, “Samson and Delilah”, also heard for the first time at the Abu Gosh concert, its text focusing on love and on dialogue, will fit in well with the pieces from the “Song of Songs”. Whereas the idea of “Joseph and His Brothers” was that of early Italian opera, here the style deals more to love songs and madrigals; in both styles, the composer has aimed to integrate the beauty of biblical texts with the musical language of 1600. As to instrumental scoring for the new works, Rotem sees this as somewhat flexible…according to what players he has at hand. Elam Rotem’s settings of the “Song of Songs” reflect the fantasy, fragrance, freedom of expression and sensuousness of this poetry; they are fresh, rich in contrasting sections, solos, fine shaping and effects. “Samson and Delilah” (not the complete story) bristled with fast exchange between singers, with drama and urgency. Elam Rotem is leaving his mark on this highly specialized style of composition.
The Profeti della Quinta singers perform with informed- and polished assurance as an ensemble and as soloists. Theirs is artistry at its finest. Having occasion to talk to Elam Rotem, I asked him how he goes about composing; his answer was simple - “at the harpsichord, with a pencil and the Bible”. 

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