I have heard some magical male choruses in my life, and Profeti della Quinta is definitely one of them.
I arrived in time to hear the pre-concert talk between the Artistic Director of Early Music Vancouver, Matthew White, and Elam Rotem, who provides the bass voice, harpsichord accompaniment, and musical direction for the group. Elam described how the group began in high school, in the Galilee region of Israel, with several boys singing Renaissance music in the hallways, or anywhere else that had good acoustics. Because they were not immersed in the European choral tradition, their style is unique. They tend towards a style where each player has a score with only his part, and not the others on the same page. Elam has recently composed “Joseph and His Brethren” (I’m fairly sure there will limited similarities to “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”) in a 17th-century style. He said that is the musical language that he knows, and it is the one it is natural for him to use for composition. Hear the beauty of the work for yourself (the first speaker is Anthony Rooley).
The repertoire of this performance focused on the music of Salomone Rossi, who was a pioneering Jewish composer, who had his work published in a time when that was nearly impossible. Rossi created musical arrangements for the Psalms, which in a sort of in-joke are called “Songs of Solomon” after the composer’s first name, although no texts from that Biblical book are included.
The performance began by showing the documentary “Hebreo: The Search for Salomone Rossi”, which is somewhat unusual for an Early Music Vancouver performance. The film, though, is gorgeous visually and aurally. It features the quintet’s visit to Mantua in northern Italy, the home of Salomone Rossi. I immediately began to plan a trip there when I saw it. This promo clip gives a good sense of what the film is about, and I recommend seeing the whole thing if you can.
The synagogue in the Mantua ghetto had architectural similarities to ones I had seen in Rome and Venice, which also had ghettos. Rossi’s final story is unknown. He may have died in a plague, or he may have died in an Austrian invasion which resulted in the ghetto being destroyed.
But on to the performance itself, which interspersed psalms sung in Hebrew with Italian love songs. To Western ears, Hebrew will tend to sound rough in comparison to the liquid sounds of Italian, so the effect was interesting. Rather than go through the numerous pieces, I’ll focus on the well-known Psalm 137. Maybe it’s the Caribbean BoneyM version (“By the rivers of Babylon”) that makes this one familiar. (The fact that Psalm 137 resonated profoundly with African slaves required to entertain their masters, just as the Jews had to entertain their captors who had spirited them away to Babylon, is a demonstration of how stories and music can so often convey universal feelings. The musical styles of BoneyM and Salomone Rossi differ drastically, needless to say.)
In the film, the singers described how Rossi used word-painting to convey the flow of the river, and chromatic glissandos to convey weeping. Listen for yourself: Al Naharot Bavel (By the Rivers of Babylon).
The performances often featured a chitarrone, which was stated to be the same as a theorbo. However, it was much smaller than the theorbo I saw in this performance a couple months ago. I loved the sound of the chitarrone, which featured in some solos.
The chorus seemed to sing at a somewhat higher pitch than I typically expect from a male chorus, and one of their members is a soprano, which from my brief research appears to be rather rare. The effect is one of transcendental resonant purity.
I love Early Music Vancouver, but there is no doubt that their tickets may seem expensive when you are contemplating a concert for a group that you do not know. Tickets Tonight frequently features EMV tickets at half-price on the day of the performance, but that requires you to buy them in person at 200 Burrard Street. Remember that you can bring a young person for free (see the EMV website) with your adult ticket. The season tickets are a good deal if you can commit to that. Also, you may be able to volunteer, thus helping out and getting some free tickets.