Last night, the magnificent Portuguese Synagogue was lit only by candles for a brilliant concert by the Frans Hals Kwartet, four gifted musicians who met recently at the conservatory. The Synagogue is a huge subject which I’ll address one day, but for now let’s just stick to the magic of last evening. There is neither electricity nor heat in the Synagogue, so the woman who sold me the tickets warned me to “dress really warmly, and then add something else after that.” I wrapped up in a down coat, polarfleece and a turtleneck, wore my hat and gloves and was reasonably comfortable. These photographs are a very pale imitation of the beauty we saw.
Just like 1675 The Synagogue is enclosed in an outer square of one-storey buildings which house its precious library and exhibits, with small paved courtyard separating the Synagogue from the rest. We crossed this in a fine rain or thick fog (depending on the moment), and pulled open the high wooden door to enter the immense worship space — perhaps three stories tall, with balconies on either side, the central space held up by immense columns. Almost all the restoration done since builders finished the Synagogue in 1675 has been maintenance, so the place looks and feels as it did more than 300 years ago.
Brass chandeliers beyond any others First, I smelled the candles burning, then saw the whole space radiant with a soft light that I’d only sipped at in home environments.
This was candlelight so pervasive, so bright, that you could read by it, see every nuance of the architecture around you. And raising your eyes to see the candles themselves was another revelation. The Synagogue’s glory to the Gentile viewer is the 17th century brass chandeliers, the model for others around the world. They are endlessly elaborate, immense in size (at least 10 feet tall, perhaps 7 feet in diameter at the bottom) and hold 30 candles each. Because the brass has been polished within an inch of its life, there are hundreds of brilliant surfaces which can reflect the candles when they are lit. Four of these chandeliers hang in the central part of the Synagogue, plus countless smaller ones everywhere else. There are even holders for single candles on the columns, standing candelabras here and there, small sets in windows, plus smaller versions of the huge chandeliers under the balconies.
There literally was not a single dark corner in any part of that huge space. For the hour that the musicians played Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 6 in F Minor and then Ravel’s in F Major, we were transfixed — not only by the music itself and its wending path through the range of human feeling, but also by being saturated, probably the first time in our lives, by candlelight. We all know what a difference a single candle makes. I can say that when there are hundreds (we stopped calculating at 500), the difference is multiplied by thousands.
If you go You won’t find these concerts listed in the usual places. Look here and hope for the best; they only happen about once a month. Come early to see the candles lit. We were 15 minutes ahead and it wasn’t enough. Don’t bother getting tickets in advance; the place is huge.