Italian baroque music from the Jewish ghetto

Nicholas McGegan, conductor and harpsichord, Philharmonia Baroque – Frank Wing

Classical Music Critic

The Howard Mayer Brown International Early Music Series of the University of Chicago Presents closed the season on Sunday afternoon with a performance by the Philharmonia Baroque Chamber Players and Chorale. There was a good-sized audience at the Logan Center and they got to hear several works by Salamone Rossi (ca. 1570-1630), a Jewish composer in the court of Mantua who worked along side Claudio Monteverdi.

The concert highlighted Rossi works that were for court occasions, and added to that works composed for the theater as well as works written for the synagogue. Rossi emerged in the concert as a composer of wide talent, who had a flair for many kinds of music. He was literally at home both in the Jewish ghetto as well as the lavash court of ducal family.

The Philharmonia Baroque, led by Nicholas McGegan at the harpsichord (who has conducted the group for over 30 years), opened the concert with a sacred piece based on Psalm 112. The “Haleluyah” was attractive and uplifting, with the eight a cappella singers giving it a serious treatment and performing it in Hebrew.

This was followed by the Sonata in dialogo Detta la Viena, a theater work that the instrumentalists played with sensitivity. The two violins were on different parts of the stage and sent the melody back and forth between them.

“Vedrò’l mio sol” was the first of several madrigals performed that afternoon. Although very dramatic at times — one line runs “without death I won’t be able to suffer” — the five singers who took it on were at times rather tentative.

To put Rossi’s music into historical context, a couple of Monteverdi works were on the program. “Laudate Dominum” featured soprano Sherezade Panthaki, who sang with a captivating voice, rich and full voice, and created some lovely ornaments.

Monteverdi’s Prologue (La Musica) from “Orfeo, found Panthaki offering a thoughtful and engaging approach to the music with the instrumentalists of the Philharmonia Baroque doing a fine job of navigating the various moods of the piece.

Near the end of the program were three theatrical works, incidental and dance music for plays, that the instrumentalists brought to life. The last of the three, Correnta sesta, Book III, featured fun and frisky work on the cello.

Peppered throughout the performance were breaks from the music during which spoken information about Rossi was presented along with maps, diagrams, musical examples, paintings and more projected onto the back of the stage. The texts of the sung works were also projected, making it easy to follow the progress of the songs.

Francesco Spagnolo, a multidisciplinary scholar focusing on Jewish studies, music, and digital media at the University of California at Berkeley, did most of the speaking although many times the spoken portion of the afternoon was a sort of conversation between him and McGegan.

This part of the presentation was the least successful. Spagnolo often spoke too fast and with his face away from the microphone so his words were literally difficult to hear. McGegan’s attempts to infuse humor (invoking, for example, Lady Gaga and country and western music) generally fell flat. Since there was less than 90 minutes of actual music, at times I felt that this spoken portion was merely there for padding out the length of the performance.

While there were many gems of interesting information provided, at other times the spoken part of the program seemed forced and unprepared. Rossi’s sister, an opera singer known as Madama Europa, was mentioned briefly and although there’s no evidence that she sang any Monteverdi, the possibility that she could have done so was the weak introduction to the Monteverdi section of the concert.

Nonetheless, the spoken part of the event may tighten up as the group continues to perform this music, and could become a highly valued part of the whole.

After the concert there was a reception and large numbers of the audience stayed on to talk with the performers and friends. I learned from a few Jewish subscribers to University of Chicago Presents just how special they found the concert. One listener told me that it was a joy to hear the prayers that are regularly sung at her Hyde Park synagogue in these settings new to her. She enjoyed being connected to something hundreds of years old and found it very moving.

This concert certainly worked well as an interfaith introduction to Rossi.