Apollo Ensemble at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater
In many ways, Salamone Rossi's life bridged two worlds. A Jewish composer who lived in Mantua at the turn of the 18th century, he wrote music for the synagogue that was comfortably in the idiom of high Renaissance church music and secular pieces that were unmistakably Baroque. (The great musicologist Gustave Reese has noted that in his sacred motets the music ran as usual from left to right, but the Hebrew text under them ran from right to left -- undoubtedly a challenge for the singers).
The Apollo Ensemble, a European chamber orchestra of Baroque specialists directed by violinist David Rabinovich, brought two of his delightful trio sonatas to their program of Jewish Baroque music at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater Thursday (presented by Pro Musica Hebraica). Scored for harpsichord and two violins, these are playful pieces, full of ornamental riffs, alternating sections of soulful declamation and athletic competition between the violin lines, and with melodies that are full of both English folk flavor and early Italian opera conventions. The performances, on gut strings played without vibrato, were agile and elegant. Rhythmic inflections were handled with restraint. The ensemble was seamless, and a sense of humor, unassuming but pervasive, drew appreciative noises from the audience.
The singers who joined the group for the rest of the music on the program, mezzo-soprano Hanna Kopra, tenor Immo Schröder and baritone Ken Gould, shared a number of the vocal characteristics that do so well with early music -- light and accurate voices, excellent diction and common sense. Gould and Schroder seemed to have a fine time with the elaborate ornamentation in Abraham Caceres's Cantata, "Le-el elim," and Kopra was particularly impressive handling a series of huge leaps down to the bottom of her range in Benedetto Marcello's "Ma'oz Tzur."
The second half of the program was devoted to an oratorio, "Dio, Clemenza e Rigore," of unknown authorship but known to have been written for a Jewish festival in 1733. It features a number of cheerful Sinfonias and a wonderful aria for mezzo-soprano accompanied by oboe and bassoon, but, clocking in at just under an hour, it seemed, over the long haul, more edifying than compelling. Performances, however, were exemplary.
-- Joan Reinthaler