By Daniel Hathaway
Under its founder and director Jeannette Sorrell, the Cleveland Baroque orchestra Apollo’s Fire has developed a local, national, and international reputation for its vivid and passionate interpretations of early music on period instruments since the ensemble was launched in 1992.
Recently, the orchestra has extended its reach into Euro-American folk music with its summertime “Come to the River” concerts and its “Sacrum Mysterium: a Celtic Christmas” performances. Those have worked well for the musicians because early music and traditional music share so many similarities in instruments and playing styles — and thanks to the versatility of today’s period instrument players, who may indulge in country fiddling with the same ardor they play Vivaldi or may regularly swap out their traversos for penny whistles to gig with Irish bands.
Now, Sorrell has taken her programming to a new level in a showcase of Jewish music from Spain and Italy entitled “Sephardic Journey: Wanderings of the Spanish Jews,” which made the rounds of venues in Akron, Cleveland Heights, Beachwood and Rocky River from Feb. 20-25. I heard the performance on Feb. 21 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights.
The creative team that put “Sephardic Journey” together over a ten-month period included Sorrell, co-director and soprano Nell Snaidas, bass Jeffrey Strauss, and cellist René Schiffer. Sorrell contributed arrangements of medieval songs and traditional liturgical chants.
Snaidas, whose father came from a Sephardic community in South America, supplied Sephardic and Ladino songs from her own repertoire. Strauss, who grew up in the Jewish cantorial tradition, helped with arrangements of ritual music and served as resident Hebrew diction coach. Schiffer transcribed some pieces from recordings and contributed his own, newly composed setting of the traditional sabbath liturgical hymn “Adon Olam,” commissioned by Daniel Shoskes.
The other major contributor to the musical program was no longer among the living. Salamone Rossi (c.1570-1630), a violinist at the court of the Duke of Mantua under Claudio Monteverdi, went home at night to the Jewish ghetto in the town and wrote both secular instrumental music and sacred vocal music in the prevailing early 17th-century styles, including sinfonias, sonatas and music with Hebrew texts in a collection he modestly titled Songs of Solomon.
Sorrell and her colleagues constructed a semi-narrative program from these materials that neatly balanced three different facets of life among the Jews of the Spanish/Italian diaspora: remembering (“O Jerusalem!,” two sections beginning each half of the program), religious ritual (“The Temple” and “The Sabbath”), and family life (“Love and Romance” and “Feasting and Celebration”).
Though the repertoire marked a departure from what Apollo’s Fire usually plays, many of its core players were onstage for Sephardic Journey. Snaidas and Strauss were joined by tenor Karim Sulayman and the dozen voices of Apollo’s Singers. Violinists Olivier Brault and Julie Andreijeski, violist Karina Schmitz, cellist René Schiffer, and bassist Sue Yelanjian are regulars in the Apollo’s Fire string section, and hammered dulcimer player Tina Bergmann, theorboist and guitarist William Sims, and organist Peter Bennett frequently appear as guests with the ensemble.
Special sonorities were provided by guest artists Christa Patton (harp, flute and shawm), Rex Benincasa (a variety of exotic percussion instruments), and Brian Kay (oud as well as theorbo).
Jeannette Sorrell can be counted on to add some simple but dramatic spatial effects that work equally well in different venues. The Sephardic program began with a drone from the stage, then Brault and Andrijeski slowly processed up the side aisles of the nave alternating exotic melody lines that developed with the addition of solo and choral voices into the Sephardic yearning song, “Ir me kero, Madre, a Yerushalayim” (I want to go to Jerusalem, Mother).
“The Temple” began with medieval Sephardic chants and continued with three pieces by Rossi that may or may not have been heard in the synagogue at Mantua — instrumental music was traditionally banned after the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem, but Rossi’s rabbi was progressive, so who knows?
A Sonata in Dialogo between violinists Brault and Andrijeski underlined the contrasts in their musical material with different accompanying instruments — harpsichord on the one hand, oud on the other. Sorrell and Apollo’s Singers made a dramatic moment out Rossi’s four-voice, homophonic setting of the lament psalm “Al Naharot Bavel” (“By the Waters of Babylon”), pointing up the text by kneading and stretching textures and phrases.
Ladino songs and ballads and medieval Turkish tunes abounded in the “Love and Romance” section. A standout was “Adio querida” (“Farewell, my beloved”), a sardonic valediction to an unworthy lover spiked with bitterness and orchestrated like an opera scene.
Highlights of the second half included, in the “Sabbath” section, Rossi’s “Haleluyah Ashreish” (Psalm 112), an elaborate setting in the style of Heinrich Schütz’s Psalms of David, and Schiffer’s new piece, composed over a chaconne bass and redolent of Buxtehude (plus a few blue notes and an exotic chord now and again). Singers and instrumentalists put them across to brilliant effect.
The evening concluded with dance pieces by Rossi and rousing Sephardic/Ladino feasting songs orchestrated for the full ensemble with some amazing percussion riffs as an interlude.
With performers of such reliable quality and a director who choreographs the proceedings down to the tiniest detail, Apollo’s Fire always puts on a good show, whatever the playlist looks like. A bit of tweaking may be in order based on its initial run, but “Sephardic Journey” is a keeper.
Daniel Hathaway is founder and editor of ClevelandClassical.com.