Thomas May isn’t an organist by profession. And he’s not an Italian-Jewish immigrant from the Cape of Good Hope; he’s no Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.
But the composer William Ross has done both in his quest to record the scores of Jewish composers in Italy — music that Roman Catholics could not play. The Civil War and World War I brought many Jews to Italy in search of political asylum or, in more extreme cases, to escape Nazism. Some perished at Auschwitz.
As Mr. Ross noted, “Italian Jewish composers may have some of the deepest musical roots.” Indeed, modern Italian composers have sometimes placed Italian Catholic imagery in their work. But Jewish composers who fled the Nazis found America a more receptive forum — even today, New York remains an almost monopoly of the World’s Baroque Concertos, perhaps the most common of late Italian Baroque classics.
Mr. Ross, who lives in the small Westchester County village of Crestwood, just north of Purchase College, is the recipient of the 2020 Doro Joyce Award from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. (His work will be on public programs next April and October.) It is named for Doro Joyce, a child of Italian immigrants who was beaten to death by Nazis while playing on the streets of Ukraine in 1940. He is the only living Jewish composer remembered in that lineage, although some claim a revival of Jewish spirituality in the Baroque.
“On the surface, it’s a love story, set in a period in Italian Jewish history where there wasn’t much love,” Mr. Ross said in a recent interview, “and I had this sense of wanting to honor that legacy.” (He has done his homework: Although he prefers to represent Italian Jewish composers with titles or titles of places that could perhaps have been intended as home to Jews who fled Italy, he does identify “Giacomo Monsarrat-Emilia” as “Italy.”)
Mr. Ross recorded music of Sebastiano Graziani — composer of the “Benevento” Quartet — and Jewish composer Andrei Lipkin, for the Dr. Lee A. Strauss-Barnes Foundation series “Dark and Daring and Deep.”
“There’s not a word and not a signature,” he said of the score. “It’s one of the most carefully crafted scores I’ve ever played. The idea is to build this narrative but through the music.”
Among the other composers Mr. Ross has recorded are that of two Jews who fled the Nazis in England — Herbert Tate and S.D. Hartz — “of whom the score is the most successful,” he said.
In all, he has toured the United States several times with a SACHS-funded seminar. And over the years, he has recorded with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Danish Orchestra and others.