By Daniel Hathaway

AF SJApollo’s Fire has made a name for itself in over twenty years’ worth of vivid and passionate interpretations of early music on period instruments. Now, founder and artistic director Jeannette Sorrell has taken her ensemble in a new direction with a program of Jewish music from Spain and Italy entitled “Sephardic Journey: Wanderings of the Spanish Jews,” which is making the rounds of venues in Akron, Cleveland Heights, Beachwood and Rocky River from February 20-25. I heard the performance on February 21 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights.

The creative team that put “Sephardic Journey” together included Sorrell, co-director and soprano Nell Snaidas, bass Jeffrey Strauss and cellist René Schiffer, who brought their collective arranging skills and individual experiences to the task. Schiffer, who transcribed some pieces from recordings, also contributed his own, newly-composed setting of Adon Olam, commissioned by Daniel Shoskes.

The other major contributor to the musical program was Salamone Rossi (c1570-1630), a violinist at the court of the Duke of Mantua under Claudio Monteverdi, who went home at night to the Jewish ghetto in the town and wrote both secular instrumental music and sacred vocal music in the prevailing early 17th-century styles, including music with Hebrew texts in a collection he modestly titled Songs of Solomon.

The resulting playlist neatly balanced three different facets of life among the Jews of the Spanish/Italian diaspora: remembering, religious ritual, and family life.

The music was very different from a normal Apollo’s Fire program, but there were many familiar faces onstage. Snaidas and Strauss were joined by tenor Karim Sulayman and the dozen voices of Apollo’s Singers. Violinists Olivier Brault and Julie Andreijeski, violist Karina Schmitz, cellist René Schiffer and bassist Sue Yelanjian are regulars in the string section, and hammered dulcimer player Tina Bergmann, theorboist and guitarist William Sims and organist Peter Bennett are hardly strangers.

Unusual sonorities were provided by guest artists Christa Patton (harp, flute and shawm), Rex Benincasa (a variety of exotic percussion instruments) and Brian Kay (oud as well as theorbo).

The program opened with a drone from the stage, then Brault and Andrijeski slowly processed up the side aisles of the nave alternating exotic melody lines that developed with the addition of solo and choral voices into the Sephardic yearning song, Ir me kero, Madre, a Yerushalayim (I want to go to Jerusalem, Mother).

The Temple” began with medieval Sephardic chants and continued with three pieces by Rossi. A Sonata in Dialogo between violinists Brault and Andrijeski was accompanied by harpsichord on the one side, oud on the other. Sorrell and Apollo’s Singers made a dramatic moment out Rossi’s four-voice setting of the lament psalm Al Naharot Bavel (By the Waters of Babylon).

Ladino songs and ballads and medieval Turkish tunes abounded in the “Love and Romance” section. A standout was Adio querida (Farewell, my beloved), a bitter valediction to an unworthy lover.

Highlights of the second half included, in the “Sabbath” section, Rossi’s Haleluyah Ashreish (Psalm 112), an elaborate setting in the style of Heinrich Schütz’s Psalms of David, and Schiffer’s new piece, composed over a chaconne bass and reminiscent of Buxtehude. Singers and instrumentalists put them across to brilliant effect.

The evening concluded with dance pieces by Rossi and rousing Sephardic/Ladino feasting songs orchestrated for the full ensemble with some amazing percussion riffs as an interlude.

Apollo’s Fire always puts on a good show, whatever the playlist looks like. A bit of tweaking may be in order based on its initial run, but “Sephardic Journey” is definitely a keeper.

Published on ClevelandClassical.com February 24, 2014

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