Elam Rotem, founder and director of Profeti della Quinta, which plays in Vancouver Nov. 9. (photo by Theresa Pewal Photographie)
Swiss ensemble Profeti della Quinta, directed by Elam Rotem, brings Stars of the Italian Renaissance: Monteverdi & Rossi to Vancouver Nov. 9. Part of Early Music Vancouver’s 2023/24 season, the concert takes place at Christ Church Cathedral.
“Salomone Rossi and Claudio Monteverdi are two composers we like very much,” Rotem told the Independent. “We find the fact that they were colleagues – they played together as instrumentalists and collaborated as composers – very interesting. Even more interesting is the fact that the Jewish singers and musicians in Mantua had this double musical life, where sometimes they sang madrigals and participated in the opera productions at the court (collaborating with Monteverdi and other non-Jewish musicians) and, at other times they sang Hebrew polyphony in the synagogue.
“In this program,” said Rotem, “we follow in the footsteps of those Jewish musicians from Mantua who, unlike Jews in other places (in Italy or elsewhere), participated in the arts. This particular constellation allowed Salomone Rossi to develop his polyphonic music for the synagogue, and it is also the reason why, despite the hopes of Rossi and his followers, this tradition never took off elsewhere.”
Rotem – who was born in Sdot Yam, Israel – has a bachelor’s in harpsichord from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, and he came to Basel, Switzerland, at the end of 2008 to specialize in early music at Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, from where he received his doctorate in a joint program with the University of Würzburg, in Germany. His PhD thesis was on early basso continuo practice.
“Throughout the 16th century, music was primarily polyphonic – typically composed of four to five parts. Towards the end of the century,” he explained, “new ideas led to the development of a new technique in which only two parts were composed: a vocal part and a basso continuo part – an instrumental bass line on which the player had to fill in the harmonies above it. The possibility of having only one singing voice allowed a much more direct and expressive communication with the audience and played an important role in the creation of early operas. The difference between the older polyphony and the new monodic style is so great that it changed the course of music history, and some examples of this will be heard in our concert.”
The origins of Profeti della Quinta go back to Rotem’s studies at Kibbutz Kabri High School, where he organized a vocal quintet with fellow students. Rotem is also a singer.
“I started Profeti in the corridors of my high school, wherever we could find some church-like acoustics” he said, “but the group only became professional after we won the York Early Music Competition in 2011.”
The ensemble now performs throughout Europe, North America, Israel and elsewhere. Focusing on the vocal repertoire of the 16th and early 17th centuries, the group “aims to create vivid and expressive performances for audiences today while, at the same time, considering period performance practices.”
About how he approaches this dual goal, Rotem said, “First and foremost, I’m interested in music from the period that I find interesting and beautiful. Then, I’m also interested in how it was performed and in what context – and, for that, you have to research and try things out. For example, we sing from (copies of) original partbooks and not from modern scores, so each singer has only his or her own line. This makes listening and making music very different. Then we also try to understand the music better. Finding out the motivations behind the decisions of composers, we feel that we can deliver their music better.”
In response to a question about how Rossi’s music is perceived with regard to its Jewishness – including his liturgical compositions – Rotem said, “It depends on what people mean by ‘Jewish music.’ If, for some people, Jewish music means Eastern European klezmer music, then Rossi’s music doesn’t sound Jewish. Rossi’s music is written in the language of his time – what we can categorize (if we must) as late Renaissance Italian style. If we compare the music of his prayers, for example, with the contemporary love madrigals (also his own), we see that the prayers are more solemn and simpler. But this is hardly surprising – the way composers created their music was based on the text, and so a heart-wrenching madrigal text would be composed in a very different way than a psalm praising the Lord. Another way to look at Rossi’s prayers is not so much as pieces of music in the normal sense, but simply the text of the prayers served on a plate of harmony – with the goal of elevating and glorifying the prayer.”
Joining Rotem (bass vocals, harpsichord and musical direction) from Profeti della Quinta on the Western Canadian tour that will take the musicians to Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary, are Doron Schleifer (countertenor), Andrea Gavagnin (countertenor), Lior Leibovici (tenor), Loïc Paulin (tenor) and Ori Harmelin (chitarrone, which is a kind of lute). After the concert in Vancouver, there will be a talk and Q&A with Rotem, hosted by Suzie LeBlanc, artistic and executive director of Early Music Vancouver.
For tickets to the performance on Nov. 9, 7:30 p.m., at Christ Church Cathedral, visit earlymusic.bc.ca.