Whenever Jordi Savall crosses the Atlantic, it’s an event, particularly when he visits our fair metropolitan area. The consummate violist da gamba, reinvigorator of standard Baroque (and beyond) repertoire, and advocate for the folk music of his native Spain came to the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater on Monday night with a program that itself crossed the Atlantic — an exploration of the evolution of music in the land known in the 16th and 17th centuries as “New Spain” and today just known as Mexico (and New Mexico). Conveniently, Savall’s album depicting said exploration was released just in time the KenCen’s current “Celebrate Mexico 2010” festival, under whose aegis the concert was presented.
Jordi Savall rockin’ the red (scarf)
Anyone familiar with the music-making of Savall and his compatriots — his wife, soprano, Montserrat Figueras; his orchestra, Hespérion XXI, which contributed strings, a harp, and percussion; his vocal group, La Capella Reial de Catalunya — will find it almost superfluous to note that they played and sang amazingly well during this concert. Beyond that, though, both the album and concert integrated the contributions of the Tembembe Ensemble Continuo, whose forces almost equaled those of the usual Savall suspects on Monday. The Tembembe folks, devoted to ancient and folk repertoire of their native Mexico, come equipped with a veritable arsenal of instruments from back in the day and a deep knowledge of ancient Mexican songs and their sources.
Both groups know how to play in multiple styles; harps and guitars both delicately picked out melodies and buzzed and thrummed with low-end energy, depending on the demands of the piece. Percussion, always on point and just loud enough, insistently pushed the melodic instruments to interact with the snaky rhythms while sounding lovely in its own right. The group’s rendition of a fandango started at a simmer, with simple strums on harps and guitars, and implacably rose to a boil, helped by Hespérion harpist Andrew Lawrence-King reading of a quote from none other than Casanova about the dance’s “incomparable lasciviousness.” Here, too, came the most crucial turn from the Special Bonus Guest dancer, Donaji Esparza, steaming up the music by beating her feet on the Eisenhower stage, although her dancing gracefully skirted the seedier aspects of Casanova’s characterization.
Savall presided as concertmaster, looking placidly upon the proceedings when not himself involved, occasionally conducting with his bow when slower meters demanded some guidance. (His long gray hair, beard, and all-black clothes made him look like everyone’s favorite drama teacher.) His viola da gamba made its biggest impression when he played it quietly, in the penultimate improvisation on “Son Jarocho,” where he dipped into a pianississimo barely audible from my seat five rows back while continuing to carry a high, sweet melodic exploration forward; no one could resist leaning forward to hear such an instrumental tone.
Yet vocal pieces provided both the bulk of the program and its most memorable moments. Ada Coronel and Enrique Barona, both from the Tembembe group, dug into folk-style vocals with an approach to phrasing and pronunciation of Spanish that you can still easily hear in Mexican music. Their he-said she-said duet “Niña como en tus mudanças” drew plenty of chuckles from a highly Hispanic crowd, with their stylish dispatch of the lyrics heightening the comedic effect. Figueras, of course, came with a different stylistic background, one she explored most hauntingly in “Duerme mi niño,” in which she herself plucked out some heartbreaking notes on a harp and breathed a passionate lament as Savall’s viola da gamba wove a hushed ornament around her voice in the background. Her voice has become a little thin, but it’s still agile and bright, and she still knows how to use it to tug at the heartstrings.
The Capella Reial vocalists put in plenty of good work, particuarly in the nativity piece, “San Sabeya, gugurumbe/El Son de los negritos,” with a proper mix of solemnity and wonder. And when all the vocalists came together, their styles blended to create something bigger and better than they had separately, in the closing “El Arrancazacate,” which had almost too many wonderful things going on to take in at once.
Savall and his partners also took the time to prepare a show, rather than just a concert. Scholarly devotion informed all these performances but did not stifle them. (I must note that the program notes did not provide even the most basic info on the composers or any of the specific pieces, which seemed to be taking this a little too far.) Besides Esparza’s bright shawl and dramatic skirt, many of the Tembembe players dressed in Mexican duds outside the usual as-anonymous-as-possible concert-wear template. The musicians did not pause between pieces, keeping the momentum high and sharpening the music’s contrasting styles. Most importantly, everyone played and sang like they were thrilled to have the opportunity to present this music to us, including a bunch of music not available on the CD. Ultimately, that committment makes almost any concert memorable, and given the skill that went with that enthusiasm, I will remember Monday’s concert for a long time to come.
Note: Based on pictures and such, I think all the names here are accurate, but there’s not much way to check since the whole show moved so fluidly. Please let me know if I got something wrong. (Well, always please let me know if I got something wrong.)
I appreciated also the blitheness with which the concert mixed traditional classical and folk music. It all sounded like it belonged when played like that. But of course we have to continue to argue whether classical music is better or worse than any other kind of music.
I have to admit that the concert was so generously proportioned that by the time it ended at 10:15, I was dragging a little. I’m the oldest 32-year-old I know.