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The Jewish Roots of Renaissance Italy

March 20, 2007

The ideal of different cultures blending together into a unified whole is one that this country holds dear. The metaphor of the melting pot means a lot to Jews in particular. The term was coined by Anglo-Jewish author Israel Zangwill in 1908, when he described America as “the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming!” Meanwhile, the poem engraved on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty, which celebrates America’s once open-armed policy toward immigrants, was written by the Jewish poet and activist Emma Lazarus.

Given American Jews’ longstanding empathy with multiculturalism, it’s not surprising that the audience at Berkeley’s Jewish Music Festival greeted Ensemble Lucidarium’s performance at First Congregational Church on Thursday evening with cheers and stamping feet. Its program of Jewish music from Renaissance Italy was nothing if not an embodiment, in musical form, of the melting pot idea.

The Milan-based Ensemble Lucidarium consists of seven Renaissance music experts who sing and play a range of period instruments, from the colascione (a type of long-necked lute) and viola da mano (an ancestor of the acoustic guitar) to the hammer dulcimer and pipe and tabor (a fife and drum combination). The concert, titled “L’Istoria de Purim,” featured several 16th-century Italian songs celebrating the festival of Purim. But the program was more an exploration of the eclectic cultural influences that fed into Italian Jewish life during the period than it was a presentation of music relating specifically to Purim.

And what a mix it was. Boasting myriad musical styles from liturgical melodies used in synagogues to courtly dances, Lucidarium’s careening cocktail of stories and songs, sung in Italian, Hebrew, Catalan, and proto-Yiddish, echoed the state of 16th-century Jewish-Italian life. Italy was already home to the oldest Jewish community in Europe, whose roots dated back to Roman times, when persecuted Jews from other European countries, including Portugal, Spain, and Germany, arrived on the scene. The new transplants not only soaked up the local customs, they also transmitted their own, extremely varied Sephardic, Ashkenazi, and other traditions.

Morris Dance and Chivalric Romance

Lucidarium reflected this historical backdrop through a program that was as playful in spirit as the festival of Purim. The madrigal-like ambience of Giovanni Lorenzo Baldano’s Moresca (sull’ Aria d’ottava) (Morris dance, on an aria in octave rhyme), translated into Hebrew from a 16th-century Italian poem, was sung in a skipping, rhythmic manner by vocalists Enrico Fink, Gloria Moretti, and Viva Biancaluna Biffi. That contrasted warmly with the buffoonery of Fink’s interpretation of Bofo-Bukh (Bovo Book) an epic poem told in old Yiddish to traditional Venetian melodies.

The juxtaposing of the ottava rima-infused Moresca and Bofo-Bukh (whose roots can be traced back to Buovo d'Antona, a popular Italian chivalric romance in ottava rima, which in turn came from an Anglo-Norman original, Bevis of Hampton) was a particularly inspired piece of programming. Ottava rima and the Anglo-Italian connection link the two pieces across meter and culture. Also, the Moresca, originally a fanciful reenactment of a battle, connects, obliquely, with the Purim story and also has a mock-epic genesis that contrasts with Bovo.

Fink’s role in Lucidarium’s concert was particularly powerful. With his bold tenor (comically usurped by a pungent falsetto for one section of Bofo-Bukh) and expressive physicality, he ricocheted between the roles of a zealous religious leader, as he somberly opened the concert with a Hebrew Shabbat prayer, and a Commedia dell’arte clown.

Ancient and Modern

One of the most delightful aspects of the concert (besides the largely Jewish audience’s raucous jeering and foot-stamping response, in accordance with tradition, to the mention of the Purim story’s arch-villain, Haman) was connecting Lucidarium’s investigation of cultural assimilation in 16th-century Italy with other musical traditions. Strains of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana emerged out of the ensemble’s fiery, feisty rendition of Dos Lid fun der Sreyfe in Venedig (Song of the Fire in Venice) — a half-spoken, half-played narrative in old Yiddish brought to life by Fink and musicians playing viola da mano, recorders, dulcian (a bassoonlike bass shawm), and percussion. Similarly, the blend of Moretti’s salty mezzo-soprano voice with Biffi’s sweet soprano in the anonymous song Fuggi, Fuggi, Fuggi (Il Ballo de Mantova) (Fly, fly, fly — the dance of Mantua) brought the connection between that melody and the Israeli national anthem (Hatikvah) sharply into focus.

The madcap quality of the concert wasn’t well served by the venue. It’s unfortunate, given the importance of syncopation, ornamentation, and percussion in Lucidarium’s repertoire, that First Congregational Church possesses such sound-swallowing acoustics. The high-energy parts of the program suffered the most. Instead of hearing the birdlike brilliance of the three-holed pipe and the whip-crack beating of the tabor, we frequently got a muffled stew of sound, like a formless mass of food churning around inside a cavernous stomach. It was a melting pot, all right, but not quite the kind that Lucidarium had in mind.

Many people prefer to think of cultural assimilation in the U.S. as more a salad bowl than a melting pot. Rather than fusing together into an indistinct whole, the ingredients in a salad create unity while retaining their individual shape and identity. I’m not sure which of the two images, if either, best sums up Jewish life in Renaissance Italy. But I do wish the sonic ingredients in “L’Istoria de Purim” had been tossed rather than puréed.



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