The first question I asked conductor Jeannette Sorrell was supposed to be straightforward: what was your experience with Jewish music growing up? “Well, growing up, I had no idea that I was half Jewish,” she said.
She then began a whirlwind story of immigration, deception and cultural collisions that landed right at the heart of her upcoming performance. Friday’s concert at Bing Concert Hall will be a collaboration between two of America’s foremost Baroque ensembles: the Grammy Award-winning Apollo’s Fire (conducted and founded by Sorrell) and the Grammy-nominated Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO). Sorrell will conduct musicians from both orchestras in “Diaspora: Jewish Music of Longing and Celebration,” a program dedicated to Jewish diaspora music, including folk and worship songs.
“It’s just really joyful and really soulful music. It’s vibrant, and it’s music of intimacy,” Sorrell said.
Much of the sonority comes from the combined ensemble’s unique instrumentation. Instrument specialists include PBO’s lutist Kevin Dixon Payne, Apollo’s Fire’s oud player Brian Kay and Apollo’s Fire’s hammered dulcimer player Tina Bergmann.
Apollo’s Fire concertmaster Alan Choo emphasized the musicians’ preexisting interest in the sounds of Jewish composers, citing personal inspirations like “Fiddler on the Roof” and Ernest Bloch. However, for most — including Choo — this program presents a new opportunity for real immersion into authentic Jewish music practice.
The concert’s highlights, according to its curators, are its featured soloists. Virtuoso klezmer clarinetist Merlin Shepherd improvises in every performance of the show, challenging his fellow musicians to improvise harmony underneath. Other soloists include singers Polina Shepherd, Haitham Haidar, Jacob Perry and Jeffrey Strauss.
The Bay Area is actually Sorrell’s childhood home, she told me. Her father — a Romanian-Jewish immigrant who hid his heritage from his family — sliced cheese for Stanford students at a deli in Palo Alto in the 1950s. Seventy years later, the music of his homeland is being played in the biggest venues of the Bay. Sorrell expressed her excitement for returning to Bing, recalling its acoustics and its 360-degree audience.
Having worked with PBO before, Sorrell expressed admiration for the group and excitement for the prospect of mixing approaches.
“Apollo’s Fire and Philharmonia have somewhat different vibes, but I think that mixing two different groups together is always really fresh and eye-opening for everyone involved,” Sorrel said. “We all learn from our colleagues and that’s what keeps us inspired every day as musicians.”
Choo echoed that the ensembles’ musicians have found camaraderie and common ground in the repertoire: “The people that I have worked with have been very nice and receptive to new ideas. We’re trying out all kinds of different things, from walking around the stage while playing, to doing all kinds of fun slides or improvisation or timing, to doing klezmer tunes in a more out-of-box way.”
“Diaspora” is an installment of PBO’s “Jews & Music” initiative, which practices largely on the work of U.C. Berkeley scholar Francesco Spagnolo. Spagnolo conducts research on “the development of Jewish music in the Italian ghettos as a place of inclusion rather than exclusion.” He typically orates onstage during “Jews & Music” programs (drawing from his experience hosting a daily four-hour radio broadcast in Italy), but Friday’s concert will be led by Sorrell.
“Over the years we’ve explored repertoires directly stemming from the Italian ghettos — especially the work of Italian-Jewish composer Salamone Rossi,” Spagnolo said. “We also foray into Christian composers like Benedetto Marcello who, in the early 1700s, transcribed melodies from the Venice ghetto and then elaborated them in his own compositions.”
The power in this music stems from its ability to connect people across nations, borders and faiths. Spagnolo also emphasized how synagogues back then were the unintentional breeding grounds of creativity and multiculturalism, incorporating Jewish and non-Jewish traditions. In today’s concert halls, we can reimagine those experiences for modernity.
Nothing speaks more to this connecting power than the epilogue to Sorrell’s story. Through an online DNA test, Sorrell discovered that her husband’s grandfather helped liberate the concentration camp where her own father was held during World War II. It’s one of those anecdotes that’s so uncanny, so serendipitous that it nearly reveals the vast and mystical network that connects diaspora communities. Perhaps we will be lucky enough to get a glimpse into that magic on Friday.