Exploring Rossi’s Place in the Jewish Liturgy and in a Wider World of Experimentation
By CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM via The New York Times
The attention given the Mantuan composer Salamone Rossi is still sometimes tinged with condescension, as astonishment over the participation of a Jewish composer in the musical life of early-17th-century Italy replaces any consideration of his work’s merit. On Monday evening the Clarion Music Society presented an intelligently devised and lovingly offered concert of vocal music by Rossi that illuminated its place in the Jewish liturgy and juxtaposed it with works by Monteverdi and Gesualdo. Here Rossi’s music revealed him to be part of — and sometimes leading — a wider group of composers who were testing the limits of harmony and expressive effects.
The performance, hosted by the imaginative Five Boroughs Music Festival, took place in an intimate, wood-paneled room at the Beth Elohim synagogue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and featured two cantors: Joshua Breitzer (the congregation’s) and Daniel Pincus. Their participation brought a vivid realism to the performances of Rossi’s sacred madrigals, which were presented in an evocative reconstruction by Joshua Jacobson that places Rossi’s polyphonic settings alongside the ancient Jewish Italian melodies that would have been used in Mantua.
What resulted was a heightened appreciation of Rossi’s innovative spirit, which combined the elegant shifting harmonies of the Italian early Baroque with a careful attention to textual detail. His setting of the “Keter,” or “Crown of Holiness,” was jubilant; in the “Halelujah Haleli” he mimics the cantor’s ritual bow with a vocal line that rises and dips.
The selection of secular madrigals by Rossi showed a much greater willingness to take harmonic risks; he evidently delighted in his era’s fashion for stark chiaroscuro contrasts and shock effects. Singing with excellent diction, the members of the ensemble teased out the many instances of word painting, lingering over the bitter harmonies on “sorte aspra” (“wicked fate”) in “Rimanti in Pace” and hissing the consonants in the final sighs of “Gradita Libertà.”
The extreme harmonies of Gesualdo’s “Moro, Lasso” showed off the singers’ assured sense of pitch and control, as they leaned into the difficult dissonances and allowed the resolutions to fall into place naturally. Under the direction of Steven Fox, the ensemble’s artistic director, tempos also took on a certain speechlike freedom that gave the text its rightful primacy and allowed the music to hover over key words. There was some fine solo singing, notably by Craig Phillips, who brought unhurried majesty to the runs in Monteverdi’s “Laudate Dominum,” and by Sherezade Panthaki, who, with her slightly dusky soprano, made for an affecting nymph in Monteverdi’s “Lamento Della Ninfa.”
The two continuo players offered instrumental interludes by rarely performed contemporaries of Rossi: Bradley Brookshire played Bernardo Storace’s “Ciaconna” for harpsichord with impetuous brilliance. Two works by Bellerofonte Castaldi allowed David Walker to explore the dynamic range of his theorbo from the soft sweetness of the high notes to the zesty twang of the bass.