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PREVIEW: The Return of the Incantare Exiles (Beth El Synagogue)

The early music ensemble Incantare performs on November 11 at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, MN.

In retrospect, “EXILE” was a little too ironic a name for a concert scheduled for the second half of 2020. The early music group Incantare – one of the standout ensembles at the Twin Cities Early Music Festival in recent years – was all set to offer a program last fall with the name EXILE: Music of the Early Modern Jewish Diaspora. Then the pandemic and lockdowns descended, and its members found themselves cut off – exiled – in different pockets around the country. Life imitates art.

That was 2020. Now – pumped with vaccinations and a penchant for musical archaeology – Incantare is poised to return from exile and deliver a concert in the Twin Cities on November 11. The program? A tour-de-force of Jewish and Jewish-influenced music that dazzled the courts of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. 

As exiles go, it wasn’t quite 40 years in the desert (although it felt like that to many) and there wasn’t a temple getting destroyed. There was, however, a call to head out into the wilderness (after quarantining) and return to the Twin Cities (after vaccinating) to make some Renaissance and early Baroque music. In their case, to unpack and sound the violins and sackbuts.

Sackbuts? Yes, sackbuts. These evocatively named instruments are half of Incantare’s signature sound: an ancestor of the modern trombone, with a smaller bell and more color in their timbres. Thanks in part to their French name saqueboute, they’re a staple of musicians’ jokes and mis-rhymed puns – but their sound is something distinct and tremulous. 

The original 1611 King James translation of the Holy Bible includes several references to sackbuts. While anachronous, the translator’s choice of the word shows how familiar 17th-century audiences were with sackbuts and their sound.

During the 19th century, ever-larger opera houses and concert halls drove an evolution in music instrument-making in the Western world. Both household and orchestral instruments were repeatedly redesigned to be louder and more consistent in tone, with a commensurate tradeoff in color and richly different voices. Pair a modern trumpet and a modern violin together, and the result is…hard to imagine. Pair a sackbut with a Baroque violin, however, and they can play sweet duets all afternoon. In the 17th century, as with Incantare’s lineup today, the two instruments were mainstays of outdoor music-making, concerts at noble courts, and church music.

For the EXILE program, Incantare explores instrumental and vocal works by Salamone Rossi, Claudio Monteverdi, Jerome Bassano, Mutio Effrem, and more – composers who were famous in their day, and who are now amassing new fans as their scores are once again being brought to life. The evening concert highlights Jewish music as it shifted and melded with traditions in early modern Europe, starting with the rich musical cultures fostered by Jews in Italy and their points of contact with non-Jewish traditions. From there, the program touches on the mutual influences of Italian, German, English and Jewish musical practices, highlighting Jewish musicians, the non-Jewish composers they influenced, and composers who inspired innovations in Jewish composition.

An excerpt from the Italian-Jewish composer Salamone Rossi (c. 1570-c. 1630)’s Sinfonie et gagliarde (1608). Rossi was the concertmaster for the Duke of Mantua for more than four decades, until a succession dispute erupted into the War of Mantuan Succession and devastated the city, including its thriving Jewish community.

“It’s an oft-told story that Jewish artists both absorb and influence the art of the larger non-Jewish community’s culture,” said David Harris, Executive Director of Rimon: The Jewish Arts Council, which is one of the concert sponsors. “But we rarely hear this story in early modern classical music.” Besides presenting beautiful and dazzling music, this concert aims to change that narrative.

“The opportunity to hear works that may not have been heard since their conception is both awe-inspiring and beautiful,” said Ben Cohen, Director of Jewish Arts, Culture and Enrichment of the Minnesota Jewish Cultural Center, which is presenting the concert with Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park. “The Minnesota JCC is proud to bring this celebrated ensemble back to our community.”

Incantare will perform its EXILE concert program at Beth El Synagogue (St. Louis Park, MN) on Thursday, November 11 at 7:30 PM.

Basil Considine