Each year Salon/Sanctuary Concerts presents a celebration of the music of Italian-Jewish composer Salomone Rossi. A contemporary of Monteverdi, Rossi was so talented and such a favorite of the Duke of Mantua in the early 17th century that he was given special dispensation to walk about the city without the yellow marker other Jews were forced to wear in public. After the city’s Jews were forced into a ghetto in 1612, Rossi, already a distinguished composer of secular madrigals, responded with a large body of Jewish liturgical music, published in a remarkable volume 10 years later in Venice.
Forgotten for two centuries, Rossi’s music was rediscovered in the 1800s, but it remains far less well known than that of some of his contemporaries. A few ensembles and promoters have been working to redress that imbalance in recent years. Two such groups gave an enthusiastic audience at Sunday’s program a big dose of Rossi’s music in all its variety, both secular and Jewish.
This year’s event featured not only the U.S. debut of vocal ensemble Profeti della Quinta, but a documentary film about the group visiting Mantua and singing Rossi’s music at the ducal palace where it was likely performed 400 years ago. This group of charismatic young men consists of a bass, two tenors, and two countertenors, plus a theorbo player. (The theorbo is a long-necked lute with two sets of strings, one for harmonic accompaniment and the other for deep bass notes.) Some of the songs are sung a capella, others accompanied by theorbo and sometimes harpsichord (bass Elam Rotem doubles on the keys). The madrigals are mostly about love, including sex. The Jewish songs are settings of Old Testament texts. The group sang sets of both types to give us a feel for both sides of Rossi’s vocal oeuvre.
The instrumental facet of Rossi’s work was ably presented by Folio, a quartet with two violins, harpsichord, and theorbo. With firm if somewhat solemn assurance, the ensemble played a selection of sinfonias, sonatas, and correntas (courantes) from the first, third, and fourth volumes of Rossi’s works. In the context of straightforward harmonic changes and familiar dance rhythms, the composer expressed themes that sometimes went in unexpected directions and always reflected a transparent beauty that makes it quite clear why the aficionados and nobles of his time valued him so highly. Playful alternating passages between the violins showed the sense of fun he could also bring to his inventive spirit. (Rossi himself was a violinist.)
As for Rossi’s Jewish music, no one knows exactly in what context it was played, but the music scholar Francesco Spagnolo makes the case for synagogue performances tailored at least in part for Gentile audiences. In Italian cities in those days, Christians – between bouts of harassing and terrorizing their Jewish neighbors – frequented synagogue services seeking cultural echoes from Jesus’s milieu. It was a bit like – well, a bit like 21st century music fans attending Early Music concerts looking for a whiff of ancient times they imagine were in some sense more genteel and authentic. A slide Spagnolo showed during his lecture of a contemporaneous drawing of dead Jews hung by their feet in Mantua’s town square puts the lie to any illusion of gentility, but so it goes.
We don’t really know where audiences of four centuries ago heard the music collected in the cleverly named 1622 “Songs of Solomon [Rossi]” volume. But the audience at Sunday’s program at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City welcomed it enthusiastically. After getting to know the men of Profeti della Quinta via the documentary, the crowd cheered the arrival on stage of the ensemble itself for its U.S. debut, and the music proved both comfortable to the ears and eye-opening.
The presence of not one but two countertenors in the quintet of accomplished singers gave the group a fully rounded light-choral sound despite the absence of female voices. In various configurations, some with instrumental accompaniment and some without, they presented settings by Rossi of Psalms, the Kaddish, and Italian love poems. In addition we heard a few compositions by Rotem, the group’s bass singer, harpsichordist, and musical director, to text from Italian poetry and the actual Song of Solomon. Rotem’s joy in the ancient music he champions was evident in his skillful adoption and adaptation of Rossi’s musical language. A countertenor duet and a tenor duet were especially notable, partly because of their contrast with the preponderance of music for four and five voices.
It was a long program – concert, lecture, intermission, movie, and another concert – but the house looked just as full after the break as before. Hundreds of people now know a lot more about Salomone Rossi Ebreo (the composer had to append the word “Hebrew” to his name so all would know his inferior status) than they probably ever imagined they would. And it was an easy, pleasurable lesson to learn.