Lucidarium Ensemble: Commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Venice Ghetto

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One of the many overarching themes at this year’s #AshkenazFest is the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the establishment of the Venice Ghetto in 1516. This was the first such Ghetto of its kind in the world (in fact the word Ghetto comes from the Italian word for foundry, geto, referring to the site’s prior use), and while it segregated Jews from the greater Venetian population, this was as much about protecting the Jewish population as it may have reflected any prejudice. Jews seeking a place of refuge from persecution across Central Europe were in fact attracted to the relative cultural freedom experienced by Venetian Jews. This created a cultural intersection between Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Turkish and Italian Jews. Though conditions were less than ideal, Jews prospered culturally, bringing study, scholarship and some permissible commerce into the community. The Ghetto thus became a place that attracted Christians and Gentiles to concerts and theatre. The melting pot that became the Venetian Ghetto remains today, 500 years later, an illustration of the impact of Jewish cross-cultural influence.

In addition to a lecture by esteemed scholar Shaul Bassi, and a fantastic  exhibition about the Ghetto that comes to us from the Museo Italo Americano in San Francisco, the Festival will feature a marquee performance by renowned European chamber music ensemble Lucidarium, who specialize in bringing little-known musical repertoires from the Renaissance and Middle Ages back to life in an entertaining, and engaging way for a 21st century public. Their show, entitled “Sounds of Shylock’s Venice,” promises a fascinating musical kaleidoscope of Renaissance-era sounds, performed in a variety of languages (Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Italian) and on exotic period instruments. This is one of the few ticketed events in the Festival, and it happens to be one that I am particularly excited for.

Q&A with Lucidarium Ensemble’s Avery Gosfield

This week, I asked Lucidarium Ensemble’s co-artistic director Avery Gosfield to answer a few questions giving us further insight into this momentous anniversary and the program the group will share with us here on Saturday September 3, 7pm at Harbourfront Centre Theatre.

Q: You along with your co-artistic director, Francis Biggi, conduct much of the research that goes into developing programs, can you tell us a little bit about that process? Where do the visions and inspirations come from? What is the main focus of your research?

A: Usually we have a story we want to tell, and begin researching a particular period in time, a milieu, the general social structure.  A lot of our work is centered on the poems that we know were sung but for which no written music remains, and archaic traces that have stayed in certain popular music traditions.  One example is  Shuruq, one of Francis’ programs, which features two young Palestinian musicians, and focuses on the parallels between medieval music and the modern Arab tradition.  Another is Hombres de Maïz, which traces the links between the Northern Italian repertoire and the music played in Northern Mexico today.  Francis concentrates more on Italian music, and I am more interested in Early Jewish music, but both are part of a larger project designed to bring the music of the other 98% – the sectors of the population that lived in the shadows of the courts and ecclesiastical institutions that were the centers of music writing and record keeping – back to life.120572_ensemble-lucidarium

Q: How does Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice reflect the cross-cultural influence of Jews in the ghetto?

A: In the third scene of Act I, Shakespeare sums up the rules governing Jewish and Gentile relations in the Italian Renaissance, when Shylock says: I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk  with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.’

Q: What sort of vibe can spectators expect of this show? Is the program mostly in Italian?

A: The program focuses on musical life both in and out of the ghetto: mainstream dances and songs for carnival, a festive hymn welcoming the Sabbath, a rollicking account of a (pre-ghetto) fire on the Rialto.  Most of the program is very lively, but there are also more pensive moments: a piyyut mourning the destruction of the Temple, a selection of coplas about Josephs’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream.  There are songs in Hebrew as well as the three major spoken languages of the Ghetto: Italian, Yiddish and Spanish (all transcribed in Hebrew letters), as well as the Italian and Venetian dialects that would have been heard beyond the ghetto gates.  Recited texts drawn from the Venetian archives as well as Jewish sources that illustrate different aspects of life in the ghetto – ranging from comic to tragic – round out the picture.  The main ’nouveauté’ of our performance at Ashkenaz will be the projections by the Italian-Swiss video artist, Silvia Fabiani: which use images drawn from Jewish Italian sources to draw the audience into a kind of 360 degree image of Shylock’s world.  

Q: It is said that your group specializes in reviving overlooked musical repertoires from the Renaissance and Middle Ages, how do you so successfully adapt these musical repertoires such that it is enjoyed by audiences today?

A: Although we try and respect the past, we know that what we are making is 21st century music, and embrace the creative aspect of what we’re doing.  We try and draw audiences into another time and place, but we try and have fun while we’re doing it, and this usually rubs off on the audience. Playing in Jewish and world music festivals has been a great ’school’ for this, because we’re often dealing with audiences that are not familiar with classical or early music, so that we have to work harder to draw them in.  When we play in early music festivals, which can be quite serious, it’s nice to see how audiences react to a situation where they are not only allowed, but are actually expected to have fun…

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