Tuesday, November 22, 2011

From ghetto to palazzo

This original program, conceived by Jessica Gould, Artistic Director of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, presented the seminal music of the 16th c. Mantuan Jew Salamone Rossi Ebreo. Soloists of the Clarion Music Society, and Steven Fox as Music Director can be credited with giving sensitive performances. Liturgical pieces were sung a cappella in the Hebrew language; secular songs were sung in Italian and accompanied by David Walker on theorbo and Gabe Shuford on harpsichord. Although all the soloists sounded superb in the ample space of the Italian Portuguese Synagogue, we were particularly taken by Molly Quinn’s heartfelt performance of “Tirsi mio, caro Tirsi”.

One could be forgiven for being ignorant of the historical and social underpinnings but the program notes went a long way toward dispelling this ignorance. The history lesson was most welcome and augmented the appreciation of this relatively unknown composer whose music was lost for two centuries. The Gonzaga court of Mantua engendered a rare period of humanism and tolerance for Jews who had for centuries been walking a fine line between acceptance and exile. Only three professions were permitted--medicine, banking and entertaining. Under the protection of the Gonzagas, Mantuan Jews experienced a Renaissance of their own with renewed interest in the Hebrew language and scholarship. Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga struggled to withstand pressure from the Vatican during the Counter-Reformation to ghettoize the Mantuan Jews. This allowed Rossi (1570-c.1630) to distinguish himself by publishing 13 volumes of music (half liturgical and half madrigals and canzonettas that have much similarity with the works of Monteverdi). He introduced the bold innovation of polyphony in sacred music which challenged existing liturgical precepts and offended more conservative members of his community who thought that only monody was acceptable in the synagogue.

And what happened to this community? Sadly, Austrian troops invaded in 1630 and destroyed the ghetto whose inhabitants fled or were killed. The Great Synagogue of Mantua, founded in 1529, was razed by Mussolini. But fortunately for us, Rossi’s music survived to be “discovered” by Baron Edmond de Rothschild on a tour of Jewish communities of Northern Italy in the 19th c. The first modern edition of Rossi’s music was published in 1876.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

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