Venice and Her Others or Music for a Baroque Melting Pot
Various: Jessica Gould, soprano; Noa Frenkel, contralto; Diego Cantalupi, lute; James Waldo, theorbo; Pedro d’Aquino. harpsichord & organ Salon/Sanctuary Concerts; The Library of the House of the Redeemer, New York City, 11.10.2015
Celebrations of inter-religious understanding abounded with the recent visit of Pope Francis to the United States. In New York City, the fanfare of numerous commemorations tended to blur together, but one particular early music concert, which celebrated (if just a little late) not only the Pontiff’s visit but the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Vatican declaration of the importance of interfaith dialogue, stood apart from the crowd.
From Ghetto to Cappella: Interfaith Exchanges in the Music of Baroque Italy was performed on Sunday October 11th at the House of the Redeemer, in a 407 year-old library brought over from Italy 100 years ago. The venue was spectacular and authentic enough without anything going on there at all. With an excellent performance and engaging program, the afternoon brought us back to another era entirely. The only drawback of the library is that it could not accommodate more people. The hall was not only completely full, but unfortunately, people were being turned away for lack of space to seat them.
The concert was produced by Salon/Sanctuary Concerts as their season opener, with assistance from NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò. The organization’s Founder and Artistic Director, Jessica Gould, is also a soprano with a sizable voice and range. She was joined in this performance by Israeli contralto Noa Frenkel, Italian lutenist Diego Cantalupi, and the American musicians Pedro d’Aquino (harpsichord and organ) and James Waldo (viola da gamba). In the best chamber music tradition, an engaging rapport among the five performers allowed several to emerge and shine for solo moments while working together throughout as a well-coordinated and mutually supportive team.
Programs of Venetian baroque music are plentiful. This one was unique, setting up juxtapositions of Jewish and Catholic sacred and secular repertoire in order to show an interchange of musical ideas during an historical period of heightened segregation. Indeed, the “Ghetto” of the concert’s title refers to the world’s first, constructed in the 16th century in Venice in order to severely limit the options of that city’s Jewish population.
This writer is not academically informed enough to be able to comment on how accurately the musical selections “prove” a Jewish influence on Catholic music or visa versa. However, a concert is not a legal case either, and it was certainly thought-provoking and enjoyable to hear Hebrew chants followed by Neapolitan songs, and Venetian cantatas that seem to contain fragments of hebraic elements. One hears the opening of Barbara Strozzi’s Lagrime Mie (sung by Frenkel) or her Salve Regina (sung by Gould) and imagines a Venice as diverse as New York City, with synagogues, mosques, and chapels abutting each other and exchanging melodies through the windows.
A rich dark timbre shared by both singers allowed them to blend very attractively. With somewhat larger voices than what one expects from the typical “early music” singer, both soprano and contralto summoned power without force when demanded by the texts. Yet both also negotiated melismatic passages with precision and ease, always an admirable skill in a more sizable instrument. Two songs by the Jewish-Italian composer Salamone Rossi received performances of rhetorical clarity and attractive color, and the two Strozzi numbers allowed both Gould and Frenkel to unpack their sound in dramatically compelling performances. The Salve Regina was particularly striking, not just because it is so rarely heard, but for all its bizarre chromatic twist and turns and extreme demands of a singer’s range. Gould used her voice expressively and ably, delivering an emotionally affecting performance that seemed to wring dramatic meaning from every note.
Benedetto Marcello is not Strozzi’s equal as a composer. But selections from his L’Estro Poetico Armonico found a place on this program as a perfect representation of the religious exchange suggested by the concert’s title. The mammoth work includes Hebrew chants the composer curated from synagogues he visited, which he then took as melodies for Italian text cantatas. A brief and pleasing duet, O Immaculata, was followed by a substantial cantata, Signor dall’Empia Gente sung by Ms. Frenkel with an outpouring of vocal lava. It bears mentioning that Ms. Frenkel is that rare bird – a true contralto, and her vocal color, the very lowest a female voice can ever be, is arresting in the best possible way. I found myself hearing Mahler and Wagner even while Frenkel performed this refined baroque music. Far from undermining the piece, her rich Erda-like instrument expanded rather than obscured the significance of the work’s spiritual message.
Two Handel duets, one a chamber duet and another taken from the Hebrew libretto version of the oratorio Esther concluded the program. The glittering coloratura of the former was balanced by the stentorian declamation of the latter, and summed up everything we needed to know about why these two voices are so well matched. Interspersed between the vocal selections were solo works for theorbo by Girolamo Kapsberger, a German composer who worked in Venice and Rome. The ensemble was fortunate to have with them the Italian lutenist Diego Cantalupi, who graced the concert with a Kapsberger Sarabanda and Toccata, performed with charismatic elegance and perfect technical command.