Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Rocky River Presbyterian Church
February 23

An exciting excursion into a new repertoire.

When you can create atmospherics in a suburban church the size of a barn, you’re doing something special. When you transport hundreds of people packed in the pews to a time and culture centuries away, that’s magical. And great fun, as Apollo’s Fire showed with its “Sephardic Journey” program this past weekend. The spirit and sound of the music could have come straight out of a Mideastern bazaar, mixed with spices ranging from ancient prayer chants to Italian Baroque.

The program was the creation of Artistic Director and conductor Jeannette Sorrell and soprano Nell Snaidas, who has toured the world singing 17th- and 18th-century Spanish music, and specializes in the Sephardic repertoire. Using the theme of spiritual longing for a homeland as a departure point, they traced the religious songs and customs the Jews brought to Spain, the development of romantic and celebratory music incorporating Spanish sounds, and how it evolved in places like Turkey and Italy after the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.

Sephardic soprano.
Bringing the music to life required a large group of musicians – 11 instrumentalists (plus Sorrell occasionally on harpsichord), and a chorus of 15 that included Snaidas and three other soloists. They struck an exotic atmosphere and thematic keynote with the opening piece, a Sorrell arrangement of the ages-old chant “Ir me kero, madre, a Yerushalayim” (I want to go to Jerusalem, mother). The chorus provided a lush backdrop for baritone Jeffrey Strauss, who segued neatly to the lighter and brighter “Cuando el Rey Nimrod,” a Sephardic folk song given spirit and sparkle by the chorus. Three liturgical chants featured warm, dynamic singing by the male chorus members, balanced by delicate work on the hammer dulcimer by Tina Bergmann.

Composer Salamone Rossi, whose seminal Songs of Solomon brought traditional Jewish music into the Baroque period, provided the core of the program. Along with religious works, he wrote pieces like “Sonata in Dialogo,” which featured sharp, smart exchanges between violinists Olivier Brault and Julie Andrijeski. A rousing performance by the chorus put an electric charge in two Songs of Solomon, drawing enthusiastic applause.

The ensemble shifted gears to finish the first half, giving the singers a chance to show what they could do with love songs. The female members of the chorus were sweet in “Ah el Novio no quere dinero,” with elegant support from flutist Christa Patton. And Snaidas was lustrous in “La Rosa enflorese,” with Andrijeski and Bergmann adding vibrant colors. 

Brault provided tenor Karim Sulayman with an enticing solo violin introduction to “Adio querida,” which the singer milked for every bit of emotional pathos inherent in a sad farewell. After a short instrumental that featured a solo by percussionist Rex Benincasa, Strauss and Sulayman struck up a lively duet in “A la Una yo nasci” that blossomed into a boisterous finish by the full group.

Snaidas opened the second half with a reprise of the thematic “Yerushalayim,” then Strauss and the male singers served up a determined “Ki eshmera Shabbat” (If I guard the Sabbath), with Banincasa adding some drama on percussion. The dark tones of “Shabbat” quickly brightened with more Songs of Solomon, highlighted by a radiant, energetic “Hallelujah Ashreish” chorus.

Two more prayers offered mixed results. Cellist Renè Schiffer wrote music for the traditional “Adon Alom,” which sounded choppy and fragmented in a call-and-response between Snaidas and the chorus. But theorbo player Brian Kay came back with a tasty solo intro to “Tzur mishelo akhalnu,” which featured strong, expressive vocals by Strauss and Sulayman, complemented by rolling percussion from Banincasa.

The finale was festive, starting with a trio of short Rossi dances that were squarely in the Baroque tradition, providing a showcase for fine string work by Brault, Andrijeski and violist Karina Schmitz. The momentum carried into a duet of folk songs that featured Snaidas and Sulayman trading lines about doughnut recipes, and the concluding “La Comida la Manana,” a full-ensemble sing-along with Patton adding flourishes on a shawm.

It was a scholarly, imaginative program that only a skillful and adventuresome ensemble could have pulled off. Apollo’s Fire has established a reputation as a first-class Baroque group, but this program and the capacity audiences it attracted – suggests there are many other fascinating period repertoires to explore.

For more on Apollo’s Fire:

Photos: Apollo's Fire by Daniel Levin; Nell Snaidas by Ron Rinaldi

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