Review: Profeti della Quinta roams Jewish Italian madrigal songs

Even for a city in which architectural surprise is no surprise, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple surprises. Do yourself a favor and step inside; the interior has just been magnificently restored.

A radiant 1929 mural surrounds the domed synagogue, conveying Jewish history from biblical times to the arrival of Jews in the New World in vivid Hollywood-esque imagery. Commissioned by the Warner brothers, it defies an orthodox reading of the Second Commandment, which forbids graven images.

That made it a perfect backdrop Thursday for an evening of music by Salomone Rossi, the late 16th and early 17th century Jewish Italian composer. Part of the Da Camera Society's Chamber Music in Historic Sites series, the concert featured the West Coast debut of a graciously sophisticated yet subtly mischievous young Israeli male vocal quintet Profeti della Quinta.

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Salomone Rossi Hebreo, as he was known, composed and performed alongside fellow madrigalist Monteverdi in the Gonzaga court of Mantua. In addition to entertaining aristocratic Gentiles, Rossi attempted to revolutionize Jewish liturgical music.

He was the first to introduce polyphony in the synagogue, a sacrilege on the order of violating the Second Commandment as far as the orthodoxy was concerned.

Profeti's program alternated groups of Italian madrigals with excerpts from Rossi's Hebrew works, many from the composer's 1623 collection of Psalm settings, slyly titled "Hahirim Asher Li'Shlomo" (The Songs of Solomon).

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His musical styles for court or synagogue were not radically different. Rossi was a conservative. Unlike Monteverdi, who was in the process of inventing a new dramatic musical language of the future, Rossi enhanced common practice.

You would not know that he was a Jewish composer from his Italian madrigals, which Profeti's two countertenors, two tenors and a bass (occasionally accompanied by a chitarrone, a long-necked lute) sang with exquisite intonation and refinement. The typical texts were concerned with sighing lovers' wounded hearts.

But did such kvetching come so naturally to Rossi that he felt less need to make a big dramatic deal of it than did Monteverdi in his livelier and more characterful madrigals? Or was Rossi trying not to draw too much attention to himself?

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Thanks to his position, he was not required to wear a yellow mark forced upon other Mantuan Jews. But he did have that Hebreo appended to his name. His understated musical style may well have been the result of his watching his step.

One thing is certain. These madrigals would not have been sung in Rossi's synagogue, and they proved disconcerting even in the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, no matter how Hollywood its origins.

In "Udite, lacrimosi spiriti d'averno" (Hear watery Spirits of Avernus), for instance, a lover bemoans his lady's "gluttonous desire." She is never satisfied by "a single death." The musical style is discreet, slightly mournful. But "death" was polite Mantua society's term for orgasm, and Rossi's roguish score has 50 shades of musical gray.

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Rossi's sacred music is stronger and equally cunning. In his setting of Psalm 137, he raised the dramatic temperature only slightly, just enough to make the repressed rage more powerful when blessings are handed out to those who smash the babes of Babylonian oppressors against the rocks. Profeti's reserved but lifelike performance had the kind of focused spark to all but bring the scenes of battle on the murals to life.

The program had a few non-Rossi numbers. A lute passacaglia by the Rossi contemporary Alessandro Piccinini was a pleasant instrumental interlude. Profeti's bassist and harpsichordist Elam Rotem set two texts from "Song of Songs" in the style of a more flamboyant Rossi alter ego.

Rotem's ersatz late Renaissance was another easy fit in this setting, but it also reminded us that Rossi had few followers. In 1612 Mantua created a Jewish ghetto, and Rossi's last years are clouded in mystery. Sabbath services with Rossi's prayers, which resembled church music, did not obviously become a lasting tradition.

Profeti ended with Rossi's little-known setting of the Kaddish in a style far less overtly emotional than is the usual cantorial practice. The music and the singing of it were indescribably beautiful. For this, at least, there might be a place.

mark.swed@latimes.com