Collegium Musicum Delivers Large Helping of
by John W. Lambert
December 7, 2008, Durham, NC: There was a mini-festival of Jewish music in the Triangle on December 6 and 7, thanks to a pair of concerts by Duke's Collegium Musicum and a concurrent appearance at the NC Museum of Art of Cantor Alberto Mizrahi, the Greek-American super-tenor known as "The Jewish Pavarotti" (reviewed elsewhere in this journal by Elizabeth and Joe Kahn).
The Collegium offered a substantial program titled "Jewish Music of the Baroque... [a]nd Instrumental Music by Jewish Composers." The evening was devoted in large measure to roughly half of Salamone Rossi's quite remarkable sacred music, taken from Hashirim asher lish'lomo (The Songs of Solomon), a collection of works for 3-8-voice choruses, edited by the composer's mentor, Rabbi Leo di Modena, and published in Venice in 1622-3. The 33 psalms, hymns, prayers, and song settings are all the known sacred music by Rossi, whose books of secular songs and madrigals are also widely esteemed. There's a bit of a problem with the title, since none of the texts are from The Song of Solomon — some scholars have suggested that the title invokes the composer's first name.
I've long admired Rossi's music, which is remarkably fresh and vibrant, particularly for this period. The reason is that, like some of the other standouts from the long history of music (the somewhat earlier Josquin comes immediately to mind), Rossi (1570-c.1630) incorporated popular tunes in his "serious" works. These tend to mean little to us now since we don't know the originals, but the bottom line is often a sense of greater interest and vibrancy than might otherwise be the case, and it is abundantly clear that these things must have been truly sensational when they first appeared. I am convinced that if Columbia Records had opted for music by Rossi instead of Gesualdo (1560-1613) when the company hired Stravinsky to headline one of the more spectacular "early music" records of 1960, thousands of music lovers would have embraced the early Jewish master's copious output.
All that said, the performances were divided up into groups, and the groups were interspersed with some other music, provided by the Duke Recorder Consort, Karen Cook, director, and the Duke Consort of Viols, Lex Silbiger, director. These small ensembles played works by Rossi, Thomas Lupo, Antonio Bassano, and Leonora Duarte, the only woman represented on this occasion. It's curious that the dates were omitted in the program, but dating in that era is not an exact science. All these composers happened to be Jewish, but the music that we heard in the beautiful sanctuary of Judea Reform Congregation, an acoustically-appealing room that is bathed in natural light filtered through nearby trees, was simply fine music from a long-ago period. There were therefore no distinctly "Jewish" overtones or nuances, no Klezmer licks, no "Gypsy" blues. Only the Hebrew texts gave away the vocal music's roots, and the instrumental works could well have been from anywhere on the continent or from England, for that matter.
The performances by the Collegium were uniformly excellent, and Tom Moore demonstrated his skill in leading a small ensemble (14 singers). All aspects of their readings were strong, including intonation, blend, phrasing, and diction. Translations were provided, and of course many of the psalms are familiar. The work of the soft-spoken recorder and viol consorts provided welcome aural supplements that helped maintain the interest of the listeners.
Fans of Rossi's music were surely delighted, and others who may have been experiencing this material for the first time may well have been amazed. There are 17 more of these things in Hashirim asher lish'lomo, and those plus the ones given in two concerts this time (the program was also presented at the Freeman Center, on December 6) would make a wonderful CD. Here's hoping.
The Collegium's spring concerts — Byrd motets and a Taverner mass — will be listed in our Triangle calendar when they are announced.
It might interest readers to know that the Collegium ad that ran in CVNC was based on the title-page of this Rossi collection; the level of scholarship all 'round was substantial.
Finally, in the interest of disclosure, Moore moonlights as a critic for CVNC and Silbiger is our organization's former Vice Chair.