Cellist Steven Isserlis onstage with Philharmonia conductor Nicholas McGegan during a rehearsal
Cellist Steven Isserlis onstage with Philharmonia conductor Nicholas McGegan during a rehearsal

Concert halls and ghettos — where Jewish and non-Jewish music blended

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In order to understand the influence of Jewish worship on the world of music, it’s necessary to suspend the normal interpretation of two key words — “ghetto” and “synagogue.”

That’s according to Francesco Spagnolo, curator of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley, who provided much of the context for “Jewish Songlines,” a multimedia presentation by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale last night at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

The sold-out show, which featured cellist Steven Isserlis and mezzo-soprano Heidi Waterman, was the second of this year’s two Bay Area programs in the PBO’s Jews & Music Initiative. The first, in December, featured performances of George Frideric Handel’s oratorio “Joseph And His Brethren.”

The PBO, a San Francisco-based ensemble that performs on period instruments and focuses mostly on music composed before 1830, is the only U.S. orchestra with a series dedicated to Jews and music.

The event at the CJM drew direct links between the sounds traditionally heard in synagogues and the music of Jewish and non-Jewish composers. The similarities are so striking that the Nazis mistakenly labeled as Jewish the French composer Maurice Ravel, whose “Deux melodies hebraiques” (Two Hebrew melodies) was played at the concert by Isserlis and a 17-piece Philharmonia ensemble.

Magnes curator Francesco Spagnolo with Philaharmonia conductor Nicholas McGegan
Magnes curator Francesco Spagnolo with Philaharmonia conductor Nicholas McGegan

Spagnolo said ghettos are traditionally understood as places where specific groups, usually minorities such as Jews, are segregated from the rest of the population. And he said synagogues usually are seen as private spaces for Jewish worship.

Instead, he said, the ghettos of Renaissance Italy were often places where Jews and non-Jews mingled and shared influences.

“The ghettos were places also of inclusion. The gates of ghettos were guarded at night, but people snuck through,” he told the audience. “Non-Jews would sneak through at night to go to synagogues to watch the Jews being Jewish.”

And the synagogue actually “has instead always been a porous space of cultural exchange,” Spagnolo said in the program notes for the show. Synagogues reflected the musical cultures of their surroundings and, in turn, were reflected in the outside world.

The sounds of Jewish services in places like Venice and Amsterdam moved from synagogues to Jewish homes, and eventually to the non-Jewish world. Gentiles such as the 18th-century Italian composer Benedetto Marcello interviewed cantors and rabbis to learn about their melodies, Spagnolo said.

Kabbalah-inspired sounds, which mixed Hebrew texts with European aesthetics, often became popular outside synagogues. In one aria sung by Waterman at the CJM, Marcello wrote the first three lines in Hebrew — from right to left — and the rest in Italian.

“Why would somebody go into the synagogue to collect this?” Spagnolo asked. “Marcello says he was looking for musical antiquity. [Listeners] expected to hear what Jesus heard in his lifetime.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.