To appreciate fully what is considered to be Jewish music, it helps to know a little about Jewish history. From where Jews fled as well as their ultimate settlements, affected not only the styles in which their choral music was written but also, of course, the languages in which various pieces were meant to be sung. The sacred of all sorts historically has always been influenced by its surrounding culture.
The second concert of Iberica 2012’s Early Music Festival, “Oratorio and Cantata,” featured sacred and synagogue music from 17th – and 18th – century Iberian sources. Last night’s well attended concert at Brookline’s Temple Ohabei Shalom will be repeated Wednesday at St. John the Evangelist Church on Beacon Hill, Boston, at 5:30 pm, and Saturday at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain at 5:30 pm.
The program was an extraordinary one; even those who frequent and sing in Jewish music concerts heard mostly if not entirely new repertoire. Fifteen musicians, including a whopping four countertenors, performed as instrumentalists or singers, with the exceptions of James Dargan, a baritone who mostly played violin, and Music Director Salomé Sandoval, a soprano who mostly played a small, sweet-sounding baroque guitar with five double strings. The other instruments included the archlute or theorbo, the 17th– century bass member of the lute family (played beautifully, as always, by guest artist Douglas Freundlich), viol, baroque cello, baroque flute, and harpsichord. All played from the bass line, “a big continuo band,” as one put it.
L.V. Gargallo’s (1636-1682) Historia de Joseph is the first Spanish work to have been entitled “oratorio.” The superb program notes remark that although the story of Joseph is a most important part of the Hebrew Bible, this alone does not make it a “Jewish piece of music.” At the time of its composition, Jews had already been expelled from Spain (1492), although the notes continue, “…in Handel’s London, Jews did indeed frequent performances of Old Testament oratorios.” I wasn’t sure who wrote the next line: “The treatment of the text clearly treats the story as an allegory to the life of Jesus… in particular the relationship between Joseph and his father (or should we write ‘Father’?) and the role of Judas (or should we say ‘Judas’?” Frankly, I found this rather troublesome, but luckily, I didn’t have to make a stand on who represented what to enjoy the music and its heart-wrenching text, sung in Spanish, resolutely in a minor key. Joseph, sung by Von Bringhurst, was being dealt with harshly by his brothers, including Ruben and Benjamin, and Judah, sung by guest countertenor Michael Collver. It took a bit of getting used to hearing this familiar story in Spanish, but the singing was beautifully expressive (especially if you knew Hebrew and Spanish) here and throughout the evening.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the notes explain, music performances took place in the synagogue and other places as “special Sabbaths” and festivals, and on many other celebratory occasions. All the singers would have been male, as they were at this concert. Ironically, the one local 18th-century esteemed Jewish composer, Abraham Caceres, was soon forgotten, while the 18th-century Christian composer, D.G. Lidarti, created music that has survived in the oral tradition of the Portuguese synagogue of Amsterdam, in the form of monodic “traditional” chants. Here we heard C.G. Lidarti’s Nora Eliohim with two men singing at either sides of three instruments, and two settings by Lidarti and Caceres where two countertenors repeated melismatically, “We give you thanks” (Anachnu modeem).
The big, important work of the evening was Dove in the Clefts of the Rock, a Hosh’ana Rabba cantata, anonymously commissioned in 1732 for the Italian Synagogue in Casale Monferrato, which took up the entire the second half. Hosha’na Rabba is the holy day the enables one a final opportunity to obtain divine pardon (for which one has presumably prayed since Yom Kippur). In the 17th and 18th centuries, this evening in which heartfelt appeals were made to God to help answer the prayers of the people of Israel for redemption and for the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, was a major occasion for the performance of art music works, especially in Italy. Apparently, these musical events attained great importance at the time in the Northern Italian Casale Monferrato Jewish Ashkenazi community.
The libretto is by S.H. Jarach, whose text describes the distress of Zion, the consolation of the Exiled, and the promise of Redemption, all perennial Jewish prayer themes. Interestingly, I found nothing at all “Jewish-sounding” at all in the music except for the famous prayer often done at services, Adon Olam, sung by one of the evening’s stars, counter-tenor Yakov Zamir. The opening overture in three movements sounded a lot like Handel; other instrumental music sounded like Vivaldi. It was the four countertenors, Yakov Zamir, Von Bringhurst, Martin Near, and Michael Collver, who, in their recitatives and arias, left the deepest emotional and musical impact. In the piece’s last trio, three countertenors provided the evening’s most rapturous moments, “Beloved ones raise a song… Bring forth, ye of might in song and delight; praise ye the Lord, His holy name render.” Every word was a beauty; the performance convinced me to catch another of Iberia 2012’s two remaining concerts this week.