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Apollo Ensemble's Jewish Baroque

This review, which somehow had disappeared into the Intertube ether, covers a concert heard last week.

Solomon Alexander Hart, The Feast of the Rejoicing of the Law at the Synagogue in Leghorn, Italy, 1850 (The Jewish Museum, New York)
The architecture and decoration of Jewish synagogues was often similar in style to Christian or Islamic structures: Roman-style frescoes in Dura-Europos, the horseshoe arches of the Ibn Shushan Synagogue in Toledo, the Gothic ribbed vault at the Altneuschul in Prague. A parallel situation exists in the history of Jewish liturgical music, a history that is still being pieced together, not least because of the efforts of the Apollo Ensemble from Amsterdam, an early music group that has brought to light many unpublished, forgotten works from the Ets Haim Library in Amsterdam.

Their work has gained enough notoriety that scholar and harpsichordist Ton Koopman stepped in to help with the transcription and arrangement of three pieces heard on May 13, in a concert of Jewish Baroque music presented by Pro Musica Hebraica in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. The program combined music for Jewish liturgical services, as well as chamber music by Jewish composers, paired with music by Christian composers to show the similarity of styles. In most cases, composers whose music is already widely known won the comparison, especially in the case of Handel's G minor trio sonata (op. 2/5), which eclipsed similar pieces by Salomone Rossi and Marco Uccellini. The only complaint to be made was the decision to alternate instrumental and vocal pieces strictly, requiring far too many time-extending set changes.

Other Articles:

Robert Battey, Baroque music of Jewish composers is lively and pretty, but it fails to stand out (Washington Post, May 15)

Emily Cary, The Apollo Ensemble performs Jewish musical gems (Washington Examiner, May 12)
The playing was generally fine, with two nicely matched violins on the many paired treble lines, slightly tremulous cello and perky bassoon on the bass line, and harpsichord and theorbo providing the continuo accompaniment. At full bore it was just slightly too much sound for the delicate, violet-hued soprano of Siri Thornhill, but in the more delicate moments of these scores, there were some exquisite balances supporting a voice that is by no means large but with limpid beauty. Although some of the liturgical pieces were a little dull, Hebrew-text discoveries by Mani, Lidarti, and an anonymous composer were well worth the effort, in particular one of Mani's settings of Le-el nora, a joyous text for the celebration of Simchat Torah, marking the end of the yearly cycle of readings from the Torah, ending with Deuteronomy and beginning again with Genesis (see the depiction in the painting above). Two settings of Kol Haneshama, the text of Psalm 150 with its melismatic "Hallelujah" section and appropriate vocal pyrotechnics, were reminiscent of Catholic settings of the Laudate dominum, like that by Mozart, with their flashy concluding Alleluias.

Pro Musica Hebraica returns in the fall with another season of Jewish music, including a headliner concert by the duo of Evgeny Kissin and Maxim Vengerov (February 24, 2014), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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