On Period Instruments, a Voyage of Faith for the 21st Century

United StatesUnited States O Jerusalem: Soloists, Apollo’s Singers, Apollo’s Fire / Jeannette Sorrell (conductor), Kulas Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, 17.11.2018. (MSJ)

O Jerusalem: Crossroads of Three Faiths (conceived and directed by Jeannette Sorrell)

Apollo’s Fire continues to challenge and enchant in this new program, which builds on some of the period instrument ensemble’s previous projects. But more than that, the group refuses to treat music of the past as something to be stowed away in neutral museum cases. O Jerusalem dares to make a vital statement.

Conceived and directed by the group’s conductor, Jeannette Sorrell, O Jerusalem gathers elements from other Apollo’s Fire projects, such as their album of Sephardic music and Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. But Sorrell assembles them with new material in a very special context: Jerusalem, holy city of the Abrahamic faiths. The result borders upon a theatrical experience.

Opening with the medieval Sephardic song ‘Ir me kero, Madre, a Yerushalayim’, only a few musicians were on stage at the Cleveland Institute of Music’s Kulas Hall. As they began singing, strains from one violin — then two — sounded from somewhere in the distance, then additional singers. Audience members soon discovered the players and singers entering down the aisles from the back of the hall, gathering on stage. The mysterious entrance was powerful, combined with the poignant, hypnotic melody. The song ‘Kuando el Rey Nimrod’ brought forth the principal vocal soloists, Sorab Wadia, Amanda Powell, and Jacob Perry.

Sorrell welcomed the crowd, stating that she wanted to focus on the people of Jerusalem ‘and the ties that bind them’. It began with an introductory section entitled ‘Outside the City’, featuring examples of music that Persian traders could have brought to the gates of Jerusalem. Singer Raha Mirzadegan recited the poem ‘Bani Adam’ by the 13th-century poet Sa’adi, while Sorrell provided translation. The last two lines left no doubt about the statement being made by this ensemble, which includes performers from all over the world and represents all the faiths of Jerusalem (and more): ‘You, who will not feel another’s pain, You forfeit the right to be called human’.

Mirzadegan then performed two Persian love songs, accompanying herself on tanbur while Sorrell directed a mixed ensemble of bowed strings, plucked strings, winds, and percussion. Though the language and material were unfamiliar, Mirzadegan focused on expressive urgency, communicating strongly across cultural borders.

In the sequence devoted to the Jewish Quarter of the city, listeners were treated to the megawatt soprano Amanda Powell, introduced by Daphna Mor’s breathy solo on the ney, a recorder-like instrument of the Middle East. Mor herself stepped forward to sing ‘Tzur mishelo akhalnu’ (‘The Lord is our rock’) with moving earthiness, to the accompaniment of medieval vielles and the full chorus.

Amanda Powell was featured again in the heartbroken balled ‘Nani Nani’, driven to a desperate climax by Rene Schiffer’s passionate solo on the baroque cello. Powell was so caught up herself, she had to suppress a sob at the end before the audience applauded, a moment demonstrating how far these performers go.

The remarkable Sorab Wadia, who has performed in opera, on Broadway, and on television, was featured in the playful song ‘A la Una yo naci’, in which he and other soloists interacted as flirting characters, creating a delightfully high-spirited scene.

Next came the Armenian and Christian Quarters, with a cello-driven version of the sacred chant ‘Havun Havun’, arranged by and featuring Rene Schiffer. Sorrell led from the harpsichord in a passacaglia by Andrea Falconieri and a bergamasque dance by Salamone Rossi. Brian Kay joined Powell to close the first half of the concert with a rousing cantiga from the Santa Maria Codex.

The second half began arrestingly, before house lights came down. Somewhere offstage in Kulas Hall, the ensemble’s percussionist and back-up keyboardist, Rex Benincasa, began a muezzin’s call to prayer, answered closer to stage by Ronnie Malley, perched in the organ loft above the stage. As the calls resounded, the musicians gathered on stage for a section that placed sacred music from all of Jerusalem’s faiths side-by-side.

Mirzadegan chanted a Muslim prayer, followed by Jacob Perry’s airy tenor in the ‘Nigra sum sed formosa’ from Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. The chorus contributed a medieval plainchant version on the same text, followed by a dramatic meditation on the hammered dulcimer by Tina Bergmann. The section closed with more Monteverdi, gradually drawing in all the performers in a grand peroration.

The Arab Quarter came next, with an oud solo from Ronnie Malley, followed by an oud duo where he was joined by Brian Kay. Powell and Malley led ‘Lamma bada’, after Malley paused to talk about his grandmother’s stories of a time in Jerusalem when people of all faiths lived together peacefully.

To close came the Sephardic ‘La Komida la Manyana’, a fun and boisterous send-off with blistering solos from violinist Emi Tanabe and Daphna Mor on the recorder. In classic Apollo’s Fire manner, the entire evening was delivered with urgency, polish, and flair. To hear an ensemble at the peak of their powers, making vital statements about the world, is a privilege.

Mark S. Jordan

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