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SFRV concludes its season of music by Jewish composers

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Last night San Francisco Renaissance Voices (SFRV) gave the San Francisco performance of the final concert of their 2013–14 season at the Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church. Rabbi (and SFRV member) Reuben Zellman had organized much of the programming for the season around the thematic title Kol Israel: The Voice of Judaism in Early Music, and last night’s program was entitled Dedication of the Synagogue and Other Jewish Ceremonies. Music Director Todd Jolly led the ensemble, which was joined, for this special occasion, by the choir of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley and five instrumentalists, violinists Maxine Nemerovski and Rachel Hurwitz, violist Vijay Chalasani, cellist Robert Howard, and harpsichordist Eugene Petrushansky.

This was a milestone occasion for Jolly, since it marked the completion of ten years of service as Music Director. Before the final selection on the program, Executive Director J. Jeff Badger announced that Jolly would be retiring to assume the role of Emeritus Music Director and that the new Music Director would be Katherine McKee, currently Assistant Music Director. Jolly contributed to this additional celebratory element with one of his own compositions as a selection on the program, a setting of Psalm 126, which was the only piece sung in the English language.

There could be no better tribute to Jolly’s track record with SFRV. Over the course of his ten years, he built up a keen sense of what his singers could do and how they could do it. He could thus adapt the collective talent of blended voices that he had cultivated to serve his own contemporary setting, which respected many Renaissance idioms but still established a unique voice.

However, Jolly’s was not the only contribution to the program that was not from the Renaissance period. The title of the program referred to a composition in fourteen very short movements composed for the dedication ceremony for a new synagogue in Sienna in 1786. The music was composed jointly by Volunio Gallichi and Francesco Drei, both of whom seemed very much aware of current practices, rather than concentrating on past traditions. As a point of reference, 1786 was the year of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 30th birthday; and the attentive listener could easily detect any number of tropes that could be traced back to Mozart.

The eighteenth century was also represented by a short Psalm setting (the final verse of Psalm 68) by Cristiano Giuseppe Lidarti. Lidarti played a greater role in the SFRV season this past March when his Esther opera was performed. This was based on a libretto that was a Hebrew translation of the text used by George Frideric Handel for his 1718 HWV 50 Esther oratorio. Lidarti’s music was original, but one could still detect the presence of Handel as an influence.

The major Renaissance composer of the evening was Salamone Rossi. Rossi served as concertmaster for the court musicians in Mantua between 1587 and 1628. To put this in perspective, Claudio Monteverdi was conductor of that ensemble in 1602. Like Monteverdi, Rossi pursued composition as well as performance; and he applied the rhetoric of the Italianate madrigal style not only to selected Psalms but also to the most solemn prayer in the Jewish liturgy, the Kaddish.

The program also presented two other works from the seventeenth century. One was a motet for the dedication of another synagogue, the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam, in 1675, composed jointly by Abraham Caceres (who may later have assisted Lidarti’s work on Esther) and Isaac Aboab da Fonseca. The other was Canticum Hebraicum, a two-part cantata for a circumcision ceremony composed by Louis Saladin. This was probably the most ornate work on the program, almost as much concerto grosso (or, at least, harpsichord concerto) as cantata. (It also required Jolly to provide obbligato percussion while conducting.)

Nevertheless, the SFRV performers were always at the strongest with a cappella repertoire from the Renaissance. Where solos were involved, the vocalists did not always quite catch on to the need to reshape the rhetoric of delivery for a new style, particularly when instrumental accompaniment was added to the mix. Also, as might be expected, there was evident difficulty with the delivery of some of the Hebrew texts. Indeed, this was particularly complicated for Kaddish, much of whose Hebrew is actually a transliteration of Aramaic.

Still, the whole season, taken its entirety, has been an ambitious labor of love on Zellman’s part; and there was much to be gained from this opportunity to experience music composed for the Jewish liturgy with the same musical attention directed towards both Catholic and Lutheran services.

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