Thursday, July 16, 2015

Works of Salamone de' Rossi performed at Beit Avi Chai (Jerusalem) by Capelata, the Adi Young Israel Choir and the Thalamus Quartet

The “Songs of Solomon” was the title given to an evening of Salamone de’ Rossi’s sacred a-cappella vocal music on July 9th 2015 at Beit Avi Chai, Jerusalem. Taking part were the Capelata Choir (one of the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir ensembles) directed by Naama Nazerathy Gordon, the Adi Young Israeli Choir, directed by Oded Shomrony and the Thalamus Vocal Quartet (musical director: Oded Shomrony). As to the title, in Hebrew “Ha-Shirim Asher li-Shlomo”, this collection of Rossi’s consists of 33 settings of psalms, hymns and other religious poems for three to eight voices of Hebrew texts, probably written for festive synagogue services. Actually, the Song of Solomon does not appear in the collection and it is thought that its name is a pun on Rossi’s first name. Although composed in the conservative (outmoded) polyphonic Italian Baroque musical tradition, and not in the semi-improvised style of music sung in the synagogue, these were the first polyphonic Hebrew choral works to appear in print.

Oded Shomrony spoke of Salamone Rossi and his own personal discovery of the Italian Jewish composer’s music. One of very few Jewish musicians contributing to the tradition of art music before the 19th century, court musician, string player and composer Salamone Rossi was probably born in Mantua in 1570. He may have been related to the historian Azariah de’ Rossi, a native of Mantua, but that is not certain. What is certain is that Salamone had a sister; one of the first great opera singers, she was referred to as Madama Europa Rossi. Salamone Rossi’s works provide direct documentation on his life and work. He entered the service of Prince Vincenzo I as a singer and violist, becoming leader of the Duke’s musical ensemble in Mantua and of an ensemble probably comprising Jewish musicians. In 1606, the Duke exempted Rossi from wearing the yellow badge that Jewish citizens were required to wear, with Vincenzo II continuing his predecessor’s policy. Shomrony made much reference to Salamone Rossi’s association with the court of the Gonzaga family, dedicating many secular works to the family, as well as to another Mantuan nobleman the Marquis of Pallazuolo. Referring to the Jewish aspect of Rossi’s life and work, Shomrony also spoke about Rabbi Leon Modena, a Jewish scholar, an accomplished musician, a cantor and one of the most colorful figures in the Jewish Renaissance; he seems to have played a major role in the planning and realization of Rossi’s Hebrew songs. It is known that Modena had been given the task of preparing them for publication and that Rossi met with him in 1622 in Venice to discuss problems connected with the publication of these songs.

At the Beit Avi Chai concert, we heard a rich selection of Rossi’s settings of Hebrew texts, by each of the ensembles and in joint performance, opening with the antiphonal “Adon Olam” (Lord of the Universe) for eight voices, performed by Capelata and the Adi Choir, the blocks of sound resounding from side to side of the hall in the typical “cori spezzati” style of the Italian style, with phrases alternating, dovetailing and, at focal moments, joining both choirs in scintillating and exuberant choral singing. “Eftach na sfatai” (Let me open my lips), Rossi’s double choir 7-voiced setting of a liturgical wedding poem of Matthias ben Isaac, was especially effective and pleasurable, with the Thalamus Quartet initiating each verse, to be echoed and answered by the two choirs. Singing Rossi’s mournful and personal setting of Psalm 137 “Al Naharot Bavel” (By the rivers of Babylon), Nazerathy Gordon and Capelata produced a well-detailed performance of this mostly homophonic work, complex in its dissonances, suspensions and harsh moments, its remarkable harmonic shifts between major and minor underscoring the emotional character of the piece. Capelata’s performance of the motet “Odecha ki anitani” (I thank you that you have answered me), Psalm 118, scored for two soprano voices, alto, two tenors and bass, displayed the work’s rare beauty with mellifluous singing of its long, introspective cantabile lines. In “Elohim Hashivenu” (God restore us) Psalm 80, a plea for salvation, also syllabic in style, Rossi borrows from the style of Christian sacred music, its opening reminiscent of a sacred piece of Orlando di Lasso. The Adi Choir singers, clear in their concept of this elaborate music, used the florid passages well to highlight key words. One of the evening’s highlights was the Adi Choir’s sensitive singing of Rossi’s motet setting of Psalm 128 "Ash'rei kol y'rei Adanai" (Happy are all who fear the Lord.

The Jerusalem-based Thalamus Quartet – soprano Shelley Berlinsky, alto Naama Nazerathy Gordon, tenor Jake Haperin and baritone Oded Shomrony – focuses mostly on a-cappella music, specializing in Renaissance madrigals, Baroque music and new Israeli music. The program included a number of pieces sung by these very experienced singers and conductors, from Rossi’s joyous “Hallelujah” (Psalm 64), to the complexities of the three-voiced setting of “Help Lord; for the faithful are no more” (Psalm 12) and the superb “May God be gracious to us and bless us” (Psalm 67). With the quartet prioritizing clarity of text, articulacy of each melodic line and fine intonation, it tends to prefer light vocal textures, perhaps too light for sacred music. Choosing to perform these pieces using heavier, more concentrated vocal textures and engaging in less physical movement on stage would bring home the message of this sacred repertoire more directly.

The program concluded with Oded Shomrony conducting both choirs in a performance that emphasized the dancelike rhythms of Rossi’s setting of “Kaddish” (with tambourine), this indeed being a song of praise, and a rich and ebullient rendition of “Hallelujah”, conducted by Nazerathy Gordon. There is much to be said for Israeli choirs singing texts familiar to them and in the language most natural to them. It was to their advantage and that of the audience at Beit Avi Chai to be exposed to the superb music written by the most famous Jewish musician of the late Italian Renaissance. What was truly impressive was the detailed, painstaking and rewarding work invested in the preparation of each work on the program, resulting in much high quality and attentive performance of both the amateur choirs and of Thalamus.

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