Steve Reich was in Rome for a series of tribute concerts. The first took place at the Tempio Maggiore (the first time in the synagogue’s history it has opened its doors for a public concert) and involved a “cantor-off” between the Roman-Jewish and the Moroccan-Sephardic traditions. Representing Rome was the synagogue’s male choir, organ, and cantor soloist. Representing North Africa was Emil Zrihan, the so-called “Moroccan Nightingale”.
I had been looking forward to it for weeks. This would finally be a live rendition of what I have been spending my time in Rome studying—the music of the Jewish community of Rome, the oldest Jewish community in Europe, considered by many to be the place to find a link back to the music of the second temple (destroyed in 70 A.D.) in Jerusalem.
I was sorely disappointed.
The Roman contingency performed a series of insipid, badly crafted 19th century arrangements that sounded—as Steve Reich later told me—like a lot of goyishe music. In short, nothing like the recordings I have been studying—those collected by Leo Levi (the Alan Lomax of Italy) in the same synagogue in the 1950s.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against progress or harmony or counterpoint. But why is a synagogue’s choir, in a city where keeping a certain tradition alive is unusually important, seemingly going out of its way to assimilate its music?