Classical: Back to the Bible

Profeti della Quinta performs Elam Rotem’s ‘Joseph and his Brothers.’

January 12, 2017 18:01
3 minute read.
Profeti della Quinta

Profeti della Quinta. (photo credit: PR)

‘Biblical stories have always fascinated me. They are dramatic, laconic, beautiful. I was captivated by the idea of presenting them on a plate of music,” says Israeli composer, harpsichordist and bass singer Elam Rotem, whose musical drama Joseph and His Brothers will be performed in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and the Profeti della Quinta ensemble will perform, conducted by Rotem.

The piece, written in the musical language of early opera, is based on the biblical story and performed in Hebrew by the Profeti della Quinta male vocal ensemble. In 2012, its Israeli premiere was considered the major musical event of the year by local critics.

Rotem, who is secular, studied composition at the Kibbutz Manor Kabri High School of Arts. On completing his studies at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, he continued his specialization in historical performance practice at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Switzerland. He is currently living in Basel, dedicating himself to both performance and research. When he was still in the Galilee, he established the vocal ensemble. The five young Israelis in the ensemble graduated from the same Basel early music school, one of the world’s best, and perform throughout the world. They all live in Switzerland.

In a phone interview from Basel, Rotem, who is in his early 30s, says that already in his youth he realized that he was not interested in composing the kind of music that is mostly written today. That is why he dedicated himself to learning and researching early music.

The composer says that the story of Joseph is especially rich and captivating.

“There is a lot of interaction among the characters in this dramatic story, so much emotion. I’ve been occupied with early music for about 10 years, and I know exactly what tools the composers of the time used in order to express certain feelings. Approaching the story of Joseph, I felt it was time to breathe life into it.”

Rotem says that he wrote the piece for the voices of his friends, the members of Profeti della Quinta.

“I worked with the singers, exactly as in the days of Monteverdi, who composed his music for specific soloists,” he says.

He stresses, “While in the ensemble’s previous projects they needed to find and create some interpretation of an existing piece, this time there is no interpretation because I know the meaning of every sound, and so do my colleagues. This is not a performance – this is the piece itself! It’s like the way Monteverdi performed his Orfeo. It was not a performance of Orfeo, it was Orfeo.” Speaking about the biblical text, Rotem adds that the language is part of the story. The Hebrew text for the opera is taken as is, “and that is not simple: This is prose, not poetry, so I needed to invent new instruments in order to deal with the language,” he explains.

The three-act piece is approximately two hours, including intermission. There is not much acting “because the biblical text is very concentrated, and things are changing fast. Every act includes four scenes, and there are brief instrumental pieces performed in between. It is like a Greek choir. After a compressed and dramatic biblical story, you can enjoy the harmony and think about what you’ve seen,” he says.

Since then, Rotem composed another piece in the same style. It was a Song of Songs circle, which had its Israeli premiere two years ago. Both pieces have been recorded in Switzerland.

The Profeti della Quinta ensemble performs music from the 16th and early 17th century throughout the world.

“We appear in Europe, the US, Canada and China. Sometimes we perform fragments from the The Song of Songs, and the audience takes it for a piece by, say, Salomone Rossi, or some other composer of the epoch. They can’t believe it was written nowadays,” says Rotem.

“To enjoy this music, no education or preparation is required,” he concludes, adding with a modest laugh, “or at least that is what I believe.”

I attended the 2012 premiere of Joseph and His Brothers and can only confirm that the concert was a thrilling musical experience. It is a must for every true Israeli music lover, as simple as that.

The concerts take place on January 24 at 8 p.m. at the Israel Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv; January 25 at 8 p.m. at the YMCA in Jerusalem; and January 28 at noon at the Mar Elias Greek Orthodox Church in Haifa. For reservations: or (02) 671-5888

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