Baroque music of Jewish composers is lively and pretty, but it fails to stand out

May 14, 2013

Does Jewish music actually need a helping hand today? Today’s music scene is a pretty straightforward, if subjective, meritocracy: Performers and presenters are always on the lookout for high-quality work, from any era, regardless of provenance. Thus, I’m a little uneasy at concerts featuring music by any group of historically discriminated-against composers.

Pro Musica Hebraica, a local philanthropy founded in 2007, seeks “to reintegrate the Jewish musical past and present into the mainstream repertoire of chamber and symphonic musical performance.” The organization has brought to light many lost or neglected composers, particularly from the Holocaust era. Its concert Monday evening at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater featured a crack early-music group from Amsterdam, the Apollo Ensemble.

The all-baroque program offered a variety of chamber music with and without singer (the superb Siri Thornhill). But other than the mild initial jolt of hearing garden-variety Italian baroque cantatas sung in Hebrew, the repertoire suggested little, to these ears, that set this music apart from its general culture. It wasn’t better, it wasn’t worse, and it wasn’t even different. Not once did we hear the augmented-second melodic interval so prevalent in cantorial Jewish music. The only vaguely exotic moment came in a passage from a setting of Psalm 15 by Benedetto Marcello (a Catholic), where the singer intoned a series of moral commands against a dour continuo line.

Otherwise, the music was, like much baroque repertoire: lively, pretty and easily forgettable. The offerings of Salomone de Rossi, M. Mani and anonymous Jewish composers were perfectly viable within their milieu. Should we be surprised?

The concert also reaffirmed Handel’s superiority against everyone else; his Sonata Op. 2, No. 5 drew the evening’s most vigorous applause.

I’m all for exploring unexplored corners of the repertoire, but when the unearthed works are neither superior nor noticeably different from others in the genre, identity advocacy in music almost suggests devaluation. Still, it was a perfectly enjoyable evening, principally for the expert, subtle playing by the Dutch ensemble.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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