Who says American early music bands can’t play European music? Apollo’s Fire, the Cleveland-based early music ensemble that will be touring the UK and Austria with Sandrine Piau in May, took local fans on a journey to medieval Spain this past weekend with delightfully authentic songs of the Sephardic Jews. The spirit and sound of the music could have come straight out of a Middle Eastern bazaar, mixed with spices ranging from ancient prayer chants to Italian Baroque.

Apollo's Fire © Roger Mastroianni
Apollo's Fire
© Roger Mastroianni

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.

As secular and spiritual pursuits were tightly interwoven, there was often little separation between folk music and sacred songs. A major break occurred in the early 17th century, when Salamone Rossi, a Jewish violinist and composer in the court of the Duke of Mantua, updated 33 hymns and psalms with polyphonic treatment and published them as the Songs of Solomon. Several were on the program, along with a few dances that revealed Rossi to be an important bridge between medieval and Baroque music. Sorrell assembled a large group of musicians for the performance – 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. The first piece by Rossi, “Sonata in Dialogo,” featured sharp and satisfying trade-offs between violinists Olivier Brault and Julie Andrijeski, both an auditory and visual treat. A rousing performance by the chorus put an electric charge into two “Songs of Solomon”, drawing a burst of 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 flautist 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 a lively duet in “A la Una yo nasci” that blossomed into a boisterous finish by the full ensemble.

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 René 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 exchanging lines about doughnut recipes, and the concluding “La Comida la Manana,” a full-ensemble sing-along with Patton adding flourishes on a shawm.

In all, this was a scholarly, imaginative program that only a skillful and adventuresome ensemble could pull off. The packed house it attracted suggests that for both players and audiences, there are fascinating worlds to explore beyond the traditional borders of Baroque.

*****