The more the world learns of the influential but elusive Renaissance composer Salomone Rossi, the more the Israeli sextet Profeti della Quinta seems to be on hand to help further that education. Members of the ensemble, which specializes in 16th and 17th century music, first became aware of Rossi’s works during their student days at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Basel, Switzerland.
They’ve been singing his praises — and his madrigals — ever since.
“Rossi has a sort of double identity,” said Elam Rotem, Profeti della Quinta’s musical director as well as its bassist and harpsichord player. “On one side, in a secular way, he composed instrumental music and madrigals just like his colleagues, but he also has this Hebrew Jewish side, which makes for a very special thing in the Jewish community.”
Audiences unfamiliar with the composer can experience for themselves just how special Rossi’s music is during Profeti’s Jan. 30 concert at the newly renovated Wilshire Boulevard Temple. The mixed program features a selection of Rossi’s devotional music — “Shir hama’alot, ashrei kol yeré ‘adonái — Psalm 128,” “Elohim hashivénu — Psalm 80:4, 8, 20” and “Shir hama’alót, beshúv ‘adonái — Psalm 126” — as well as a selection of Italian madrigals and songs by Rossi’s contemporaries.
The concert is part of Profeti’s first visit to the United States and the centerpiece of the Da Camera Society’s Mid-Wilshire Festival; it will also feature a screening of the 45-minute documentary “Hebreo: The Search for Salomone Rossi,” directed by Joseph Rochlitz. Rotem and his fellow Profetians are prominently featured in the documentary, having traveled with the filmmakers to Rossi’s native Mantua both for research purposes and to perform in the pleasure palace of the Gonzaga dukes.
The Da Camera Society of Mount St. Mary’s College programs chamber music in historically significant sites. Having an internationally acclaimed ensemble such as Profeti della Quinta to help break the seal on the temple’s new Magnin Sanctuary — and with Rossi, no less — is a programming coup, according to Kelly Garrison, Da Camera’s general director.
“Although his music is active in temple life, Rossi’s works don’t appear frequently,” Garrison said. “When I mentioned the prospect of a Salomone Rossi program to [Wilshire Boulevard Temple] Cantor [Don] Gurney, his ears perked up. And having a group like Profeti della Quinta, a group with this exceptional level of artistry and scholarship, will make this a deeply moving and layered performance.”
Students of early music, particularly in Israel, will likely have heard of Rossi (circa 1570-1630), but his biography is fragmented. A violinist and court musician for Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga during the early part of the 17th century, Rossi enjoyed civic privileges in Mantua that few Italian Jews were given, such as being permitted to move about the city without wearing an orange band that identified his faith. By ducal decree, only certain medical practitioners and young children had this freedom.
Rossi’s royal patronage likely did not help him, however, when escalating tensions between Jews and Christians resulted in the Jews being confined to a ghetto in 1612. In the years that followed, the man who had been known in the court as Rossi the Hebrew turned increasingly toward setting prayer to music. In 1623, he published the first music written specifically to accompany Hebrew prayers. The work carried the somewhat pixie-ish title “Hashirim asher li’Shlomo” (“The Songs of Solomon”). punning on the biblical text and on the composer’s own name.
The composer who had once enjoyed success writing amorous ballads had clearly embraced a very different kind of passion.
“In the preface for the Hebrew prayers book, he writes, ‘Finally after all these years, I can bring back the gift I got from God for music. I can now pay something back to my community to my God,’ ” Rotem said. “It’s very beautiful.”
It was “The Songs of Solomon” that Profeti della Quinta recorded in 2009 as its first CD. The group continued the exploration with Rossi’s “Il Mantovano Hebreo,” released on CD in November 2013, and it is this mixed program of Rossi’s devotional music, Hebrew prayers, Italian madrigals and instrumental pieces that form the basis for their current international tour. Profeti is not performing the instrumentals live because those pieces require a substantially larger orchestra.
Founding members of Profeti met in high school in the Galilee region of Israel, where they discovered a shared love of early music. Following stints in the Israeli army, the future ensemble members came together again as students at the prestigious Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Basel, where Profeti is currently based.
“They were doing a Salomone Rossi program, and they needed singers,” Rotem recalled. “So, ‘Great, you’re from Israel,’ and it was our first program and our first CD. It’s a bit different now than it was in 2008. We’re focusing more on the secular side of Rossi.”
As self-dubbed “prophets of the fifth,” the ensemble pays homage to the fifth, typically the most important musical interval. During its early days, the group went by the term’s Hebrew name, Nivea haKvinta.
“That sounds like we’re a progressive rock band or something,” Rotem said. “When we started to have serious concerts, we thought, ‘OK, but we have to change the name.’
The English translation proved too unwieldy, but the Italian translation was positively melodious.
“In fact, every place we go, some person tries to interpret the name differently,” Rotem said with a laugh. “We went to Geneva and saw in program notes that it says we’re named after the fifth version of the translation of the Bible or something. There are all kinds of funny interpretations.”
Profeti della Quinta performs Jan. 30, 8:30 p.m. at Wilshire Boulevard Temple Glazer Campus, 3663 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. $39-$43. For more information, call (213) 477-2929 or visit www.DaCamera.org.