My Musical Weekend: Ludwig van Beethoven and Salamone Rossi

Now, there’s an odd couple… But that was my musical weekend.

On Saturday night, I attended the all-Beethoven program by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. I had been privileged to attend a dress rehearsal for part of this program a week earlier at the DiMenna Center, hearing final sessions with piano soloist Nobuyuki Tsoji in the Emperor Concerto, as well as rehearsal of the Coriolan Overture and of their planned encore, the slow movement of a Mozart Piano Concerto. The dress rehearsal convinced me that it would be a memorable concert, and so it proved. In the intervening week, the musicians had performed this program several times on a tour beginning in Florida, culminating at Carnegie on Saturday night.

Of course, the Carnegie performance was far superior to the dress rehearsal, for two simple reasons: (1) they had really “played in” the program by the time they reached Carnegie, and any rough spots or imprecisions heard at the dress rehearsal were long gone, and (2) the rehearsal space’s close, dry acoustics compared to the marvelous resonance of Carnegie, heard from the first row of the dress circle.

During the first half of the concert, we heard Coriolan Overture and the 2nd Symphony. Both were exemplary, in the familiar Orpheus fashion. This group produces a big sound in Carnegie — only occasionally does one miss a larger string section characteristic of a symphony orchestra — and plays with chamber ensemble subtlety. One senses that a conductor would only get in the way of this group, and having observed them working out interpretive points in a rehearsal, while defering to the designated leader for the piece, was revelatory. I don’t think anybody can really beat them in this repertory.

But the Beethoven was the true miracle. Young Mr. Tsoji has been blind from birth, and I’m not sure how he learns a big work like the Beethoven or plays it with such unerring accuracy without being able to see the keyboard. His playing is firm, composed, full of subtle insights, dashing when required, and fully coordinated with the orchestra, all based on breathing together and weaving himself into the Orpheus chamber ensemble. I bet he probably is more comfortable playing with them than with a conductor, since he can work everything out in rehearsal and have a direct emotional contact with the orchestra, without any unnecessary intermediary. Tempi were brisk in the outer movements, slow and poetic in the central movement, with a velvety touch from the pianist and wonderful interplay with the wind soloists. Extraordinary!!

On Sunday, I attended an event curated by Salon/Sanctuary Concerts at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: an afternoon titled “From Ghetto to Palazzo: The Worlds of Salamone Rossi.” The focus was the somewhat mysterious musical polymath of Mantua from the early 17th century, a colleague and friend of Monteverdi, a violinist in the ducal orchestra who wrote trio sonatas when that form was brand new, Italian madrigals, and polyphonic choral settings of Hebrew liturgical verse that was the first such “composed” Jewish music ever to be published. But nobody is quite sure when he was born, where he learned his art, or where or when he died. Best estimate of dates: 1570-1630. Rossi’s music was “rediscovered” in the 19th century by French and German cantors, somewhat by chance, and then received publication in critical editions during this century, with a boomlet of recordings mainly with the advent of compact discs.

The format of the afternoon: chamber group Folia played from the trio sonatas, then Rossi scholar Francesco Spagnolo from University of California at Berkeley gave a witty talk about what is known and not known about the composer, his life, and the setting for his music. After a brief intermission, they showed a documentary film, “Hebreo: The Search for Salamone Rossi” made by Joseph Rochlitz, focusing on the first concert of Rossi’s music to be given in the ducal palace in Mantua by the young male vocal group Profeti della Quinta. This excellent film served to introduce the music and the singers in a very intimate way, and was followed by the U.S. debut of Profeti della Quinta, who turned out to be an excellent young group.

Indeed, I have their five-year-old recording of music by Rossi, and put it on when I got home, but I could see from the documentation that the group has changed since then — the tenors from that recording are both replaced by different singers today — and they have vastly improved as a group in the intervening years. Somebody should rush them back into a recording studio in their current configuration! Excellent! The entire afternoon was entertaining and informative.
Postscript – A check on-line shows that a new CD of Rossi’s music by this group was issued in November. I now have it on order. Excellent!!

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