We early music fans are used to hearing sacred texts set to music, with all religious content worn away by the passing of the centuries. And we can use the term "religious" without being specific because when we're talking about European composers the religion is, of course, Christianity.
Except when it isn't.
Last night a small version of the venerable Clarion Music Society performed a short but fulfilling program called "Sacred Music and Madrigals of Salamone Rossi" in a Harvardwood-sponsored concert at the Down Town Association. In training a spotlight on Rossi, a mostly neglected Jewish composer who was a contemporary of Monteverdi, the group introduced us to a series of secular madrigals with text by the poet Guarini, but also four Hebrew prayers Rossi set to beautiful polyphonic vocal music at a time when Jewish sacred music was still mostly stuck in monody mode. It was nothing short of a revelation to hear these familiar Hebrew texts – including what we know as the Mourner's Kaddish – in such settings.
Led by tenor Steven Fox, the five singers (also including two sopranos, an alto, and a bass) followed up the Jewish prayers with a set of eight Monteverdi-style madrigals set to Guarini's lovely poems, some accompanied, with both precision and delicacy, by Charles Weaver on theorbo and baroque guitar. The madrigals ranged from five-voice pieces to duos and solos, so every singer got a chance to step into the spotlight.
Though there were no solo numbers for bass Craig Philips, his deep, resonant tones drove the action in several pieces. It was gratifying to hear the often taken-for-granted alto, in this case Luthien Brackett, deliver a moving solo in "Anima del cor mio" and duet nicely with soprano Molly Quinn in "Gradita liberta." Soprano Nacole Palmer's impassioned "Tu parti, ahi lasso" was another highlight, a good example of what can make a concert like this especially enjoyable: the singers showing not just near-perfect intonation and timing but personality as well. This was no clinic; it was a happening, if a small, compressed one. Quinn's pleasingly piercing voice led the group in an impressively expressive "Ohime, se tanto amite."
Kudos to Mr. Fox for successfully reviving the storied Clarion Music Society, and for championing the undeservedly obscure Salamone Rossi.