The notion of a European “renaissance” in the 14th through 17th centuries has grown more problematic in recent decades, challenged by historians of many stripes. They include those who emphasize cultural continuities, as well as those who draw attention to stagnation in science and mathematics during that period of supposed reawakening.
Still, nowhere is it more startling to encounter the age’s tropes of rebirth and emergence from darkness than in a Jewish text written at the height of the Catholic Reformation: Rabbi Leone da Modena’s praise for the composer Salamone Rossi and his “Hashirim Asher Lishlomo,” published in Venice in 1622. “After the splendor of the people had been dimmed by the passage of days and years [in the Diaspora],” Rabbi Leone wrote, “he restored their crown to its ancient state as in the days of the Levites on their platforms. He set the words of the Psalms to music that was published, joyous songs before the Ark on Sabbaths, feasts and festivals.”
Rossi’s music will shine forth on November 4 at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan when Salon/Sanctuary Concerts presents “From Ghetto to Palazzo: Vocal Works of Salamone Rossi Hebreo.” The concert by Cantor Daniel Singer and the Western Wind Ensemble will feature sacred works in Hebrew and secular madrigals and theater compositions in Italian. Francesco Spagnolo, curator of collections at the University of California at Berkeley’s Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, will give a pre-concert lecture on Rossi and his world.
Electric energy pulses through the music of Tel Aviv-born pianist and composer Matan Porat. Earlier this year pianist David Greilsammer and the Israeli Chamber Project released recordings of his works, and he will tour North America this month and next spring with Musicians from Marlboro. He will be at the keyboard for György Ligeti’s 1982 Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano on October 20 in New York, with subsequent dates in Connecticut, Schenectady, Toronto, Washington, DC, Vermont, Boston, and Philadelphia. In May 2013 he will perform in the rapturous Opus 26 Piano Quartet by Johannes Brahms, to whom Ligeti’s trio pays wry tribute.
Only 30, the Berlin-based Porat is formidably accomplished, with a hefty catalogue of compositions and a concert repertoire ranging from Rameau and Bach to contemporary works. He trained at Tel Aviv’s Rubin Academy of Music and at Juilliard, and his teachers have included Emanuel Krasovsky, Maria João Pires and Murray Perahia. The wise-beyond-his-years depth of Porat’s playing astonishes: his Mozart is dewy and brimming with joy, his Schumann fragile but smoldering, and he burns up the keyboard playing his own variations on Astor Piazzola’s Libertango. (You can sample his pianism at his website.)
Porat has toured with Peter Brook’s A Magic Flute and improvised scores for silent films (Alex Ross of The New Yorker called his playing “an astounding feat of creative musicianship”); he is also a member of the Gropius Ensemble and the Tango Factory. The artists from whom Porat has drawn inspiration — including Jorge Luis Borges, Yehuda Amichai, Franz Kafka, and Roy Lichtenstein — bespeak a sophisticated and wide-ranging intellect. Volatile and intense, his compositions brim with life even when they take listeners to dark places. The author of a blog entitled Off the Blocks best captured this aspect of his art. “We could play Whaam! by Matan Porat at a party,” he wrote. “It would have to be a good party, though.”
Matan Porat answered a few questions by email on the eve of his North American tour.
The sheer number of oratorios that George Frideric Handel wrote on Jewish subjects, including “Solomon,” “Esther,” “Joseph,” “Saul,” and “Judas Maccabeus,” has long led critics to suppose that he was a stout friend to the Children of Israel, and that London Jews were key patrons of his music. More recent scholarship suggests that Handel’s purported empathy with the Jewish people was invoked to prop up “the sacredness of his works” (too steeped in the profane funk of the theater), and that the enthusiasm of 18th-century Jews for Handel may have been overstated to assuage doubts about Jews as loyal British subjects.
Besides, one need look only to Handel’s borrowings from other composers — once derided as plagiarism or evidence of waning genius — to lay bare the old supersessionist agenda. Take, for instance, “Israel in Egypt” (1739, rev. 1756), recently recorded to splendid effect by Trinity Wall Street (Musica Omnia). Exploring Handel’s extensive use of music from Dionigi Erba’s “Magnificat” in Part III of “Israel in Egypt,” Ellen T. Harris of M.I.T. suggested that Handel had conflated words from Exodus with music that had accompanied Mary’s song of praise in Luke, “deliberately reinterpreting the Old Testament (Moses’ Song) through the New Testament (Mary’s Song), in the manner of a Christian theologian.” So much for Handel as BFF to Am Yisrael.
The photo of sweet-faced young people on the CD cover does not prepare you for the ferocity of the music making on “Opus 1” (Azica), the debut recording by the Israeli Chamber Project. Founded in 2008, the ICP as configured for Opus 1 comprises clarinetist Tibi Cziger, cellist Michal Korman, harpist Sivan Magen, pianist Assaff Weisman and violinist Itamar Zorman.
“Opus 1” showcases the group’s wide-ranging musical sympathies. Béla Bartók’s “Contrasts” (a 1938 Benny Goodman commission) finds Cziger dispatching the clarinet part with cool panache while Zorman and Weisman bring Bartók’s bluesy, folksy soundscape to boisterous life. Zorman and Magen lavish playing of surpassing beauty on Camille Saint-Saën’s 1907 “Fantaisie” for violin and harp, and the full ensemble shines in Bohuslav Martinů’s “Chamber Music No. 1,” most of all in the glowing, enigmatic Andante.
As performed by Korman and Magen, Claude Debussy’s 1915 Sonata for Cello and Piano (arranged for cello and harp) is all moonbeams and Gallic suavity. The album’s highlight is an ICP commission: “Night Horses” by Matan Porat, whose music has been played in concert and on a recent CD by David Greilsammer. Inspired by one of Jorge Luis Borges’s lectures, “Night Horses” is a prickly, slithering fever-dream that leaves you longing to hear more from both Porat and the ICP.
The ICP holds its fall gala on October 16 in New York, where it will also perform at the America-Israel Cultural Foundation’s gala on October 28. The ICP’s 2012-13 schedule includes concerts in New York, Massachusetts, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and Israel, with additional dates to be added.
Assaff Weisman and Tibi Cziger, the ICP’s executive and artistic directors, respectively, answered a few questions by e-mail.
Marion Lignana Rosenberg: There are so many fine chamber ensembles. What does the ICP offer that is unique?
“On the Sublime” is a treatise from early in the Common Era by an unknown author, conventionally styled Longinus. Some scholars suspect that Longinus was a Hellenized Jew because he or she paraphrased Genesis, praising Moses for telling of Divinity’s power “in the opening words of his ‘Laws’: ‘God said’ — what? — ‘let there be light, and there was light: let there be land, and there was.’”
One of the great instances of the sublime in music centers on the very verses echoed by Longinus: the prelude and opening number of Joseph Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation” (1796–98). With dreary dissonances, uneasy wind figures and hollow, long-delayed cadences, the composer depicts the void and darkness of chaos. The archangel Raphael and a whispering chorus quietly narrate the creation of heavens and earth.
But at the moment when light shines forth, the music explodes in C major splendor. Brass fanfares sound, strings throw off their mutes and unveil their full glory, and the chorus roars in joy. As wrought by Haydn, the birth of light takes about 15 seconds, but its impact is shattering. (Bewilderment, Longinus wrote, is a mark of the sublime.) At The Creation’s Vienna premiere, stunned listeners interrupted the performance for several long moments after this passage.
Two enthralling recordings that pair keyboard music from centuries past with contemporary works have been released this year. The first is Jeremy Denk’s “Ligeti/Beethoven” (Nonesuch), which bookends Beethoven’s otherworldly Sonata Opus 111 with György Ligeti’s astringent and electrifying études. The other is “Baroque Conversations” (Sony Classical) by the Jerusalem-born pianist and conductor “David Greilsammer,” who will play a late-night concert on August 14 at New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival and a recital on August 17 at the Ravinia Festival near Chicago.
Greilsammer is 35 and music director of the Geneva Chamber Orchestra. He has made a name for himself by crafting risky, imaginative programs: playing all of Mozart’s piano sonatas in one day, for example, or exploring links between Freemasonry and Kabbalah in music. He studied at the Rubin Conservatory in Jerusalem and in New York with Yoheved Kaplinsky and Richard Goode.
“Baroque Conversations” showcases Greilsammer’s seductive, deeply intelligent playing of an astonishing range of music. Four groups of musical encounters bracket 20th- and 21st-century works with earlier music, bathing all in kaleidoscopic colors. The restless intervals of pieces by Rameau and Soler find shadowy echoes in Morton Feldman’s spectral “Piano Piece”; the prepared-piano stutters of Nimrod Sahar’s “Aux murailles rougies” (honoring Juliano Mer-Khamis) shine a desolate light on the stately sadness of works by Froberger and Gibbons. The program also includes music by Couperin, Matan Porat, Handel, Frescobaldi, Helmut Lachenmann, and Sweelinck.
Greilsammer answered a few questions by email on the eve of his Mostly Mozart recital.
Marion Lignana Rosenberg: In your Twitter profile you write that you are “always interested in crazy musical projects.” What makes a project “crazy” for you?
The 2013 bicentennial of Giuseppe Verdi’s birth is fast approaching. The great Italian opera composer first won fame with “Nabucco” (1842), based at several removes on the biblical book of Jeremiah. The stateless Italians of the day saw themselves in the opera’s enslaved Israelites, and the chorus “Va, pensiero” (drawn from Psalm 137) threaded itself into Italy’s national fabric.
In recent years scholars have questioned the importance that “Va, pensiero” had during the Risorgimento, or Italian unification, but Italians have always taken it up at pivotal times, most recently in 2011, when Riccardo Muti turned an encore of “Va, pensiero” at the Rome Opera into a mighty communal protest against cuts in public arts funding.
A more momentous chapter in the history of Verdi reception involving Jews and appropriated liturgical texts is set forth in the film “Defiant Requiem,” which will be shown at the DocuWeeks Theatrical Documentary Showcase in New York starting August 3 and in Los Angeles starting August 17.
Directed by Doug Shultz, “Defiant Requiem” tells the story of Rafael Schächter, a 29-year-old Czech conductor who was imprisoned in Terezín in 1941. After finding a piano in the basement of a camp building, he organized concerts to bolster the morale of his fellow inmates. Eventually he taught some 150 amateur choristers Verdi’s Manzoni Requiem using a single smuggled score.
In a thoughtful article published last year, memoirist and novelist André Aciman explored the “pathless Odyssey” around the Mediterranean taken by the song “Naci en Alamo.” Musicians of many different languages and ethnicities, including Yasmin Levy, have taken up this so-called “Song of the Gypsies,” whose origins are disputed and elusive. For Aciman, the ballad epitomizes themes of “displacement, exile, memory, and cultural miscegenation.”
Similar concerns underpin a ravishing new CD by Arianna Savall and Petter Udland Johansen, “Hirundo Maris” (ECM New Series). The name of the disc and the five-person ensemble it features is Latin for “sea swallow,” the bird whose migrations away from northern lands herald the coming of winter and echo the leave-takings of seafarers, pilgrims and lovers.
The songs that make up “Hirundo Maris” meander in time and space. Most are traditional ditties, though a few are newly composed. Their texts are in Catalan, Ladino, Norwegian and English, but one instrumental piece, “Le chant des étoiles,” jettisons words and other earthly things to wander among the stars. The album’s genre is blessedly indefinable: classical? folk? world music? The spare, haunting arrangements make use of harps, mandolin, guitar, fiddle, percussion and related instruments. And the musical and poetic motifs that the songs share hint at meetings and common cares among the explorers, merchants and exiles who sailed the Mediterranean and the North Seas in ages past.