Seraphic Fire closes with Jewish and Christian Renaissance

By David Fleshler

In its final program of the season, the choir Seraphic Fire is taking us to the late Renaissance court of the Duke of Mantua, where the orchestra boasted two remarkable musicians.

The court’s conductor, Claudio Monteverdi, was one of the most illustrious names in Italian music, the first great composer of opera and a man who helped bring about the transition to the Baroque. And in the violin section sat Salamone Rossi: a Jew who succeeded in the gentile world despite a disdain for the easy course of religious conversion, and a composer primarily of secular works which make infrequent appearances on today’s choral programs.

 In a concert entitled The Jew and the Gentile, performed Thursday at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Seraphic Fire’s artistic director Patrick Dupré Quigley brought together the works of both these composers in an illuminating look at a time of musical and cultural transformation.

 To those for whom Jewish music means either a klezmer orchestra or a cantor, the work of Rossi (1570-1630) will be a surprise. He was among the creators of the trio sonata—the precursor to the string quartet—and Quigley chose to introduce Rossi’s music with a strictly instrumental composition for two violins, baroque cello and organ.  This lively, fast-paced sonata was well played, with a combination of period correctness, technical polish and musical commitment that marks Seraphic Fire performances. But as a composition, the trio sonata, and one that followed later, was more historically interesting than musically compelling.

 More rewarding were two of Rossi’s madrigals, settings of Italian texts of spectacularly violent passion (“My woman, more cruel than hell. She cannot be satisfied. Because just one death cannot satisfy her greedy desire.”) Derek Chester performed Parlo, misero, o taccio? with a well-focused tenor and an evocative emotional edge. The soprano Abigail Haynes Lennox sang the darker, minor-key Udite, lacrimosi with passion and an elegance of phrasing that gave the work an immediacy that made one forget it was nearly four hundred years old.

 The most striking of Rossi’s compositions was a series of psalms in Hebrew, beginning with Keter yittenu lakh, where the choir was joined by George Mordecai, cantor of Temple Emanu-El. Here for the first time, the Jewish and Christian worlds seemed to meet. The choir began in a style that sounded little different from other sacred Christian music of the time. Then over a pedal point in the basses, Mordecai entered and embarked on a complex, improvisatory display of cantorial virtuosity with distinctly Jewish melodic phrases. If the worlds of Jew and gentile didn’t exactly merge here, they at least mingled amiably.

 Although the choir’s trademark clarity and precision came off as a bit dry in the synagogue’s arid acoustic, the singers brought their usual technical polish, sensitive phrasing and rhythmic verve to performances of Monteverdi’s Beatus Vir, Laudate Dominum, Magnificat and Dixit Dominus. The performances are not just sung but choreographed, with groups of singers deployed around the stage for the more complex works and soloists taking a few steps forward from the chorus and then retreating gracefully at the end.

  The program will be repeated Saturday at 8 p.m. at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale and Sunday at 4 p.m. at Temple Emanu-El in Miami Beach. 305-285-9060; www.seraphicfire.org.

 [Jews praying in a synagogue on Yom KIppur: from an 1878 painting by Maurice Gottlieb.]

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One Response to “Seraphic Fire closes with Jewish and Christian Renaissance”

  1. Posted May 15, 2009 at 2:29 pm by Sharon Chester

    I wish I could have been there.
    Thank you for making this enlightening and positive reiview available to families and friends of the musicians who live so far way that they could not attend. I could almost hear the music as I read this.

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Fri May 15, 2009
at 12:24 pm
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