In a plea for heavenly and earthly peace, a supremely talented group of singers and instrumentalists led by Jordi Savall and Monserrat Figueras that included members of the early music instrumental ensemble Hespèrion XXI, the vocal ensemble La Capella Reial de Catalunya, and the Sufi group Al-Darwish, gathered in Sanders Theatre on May 5 to celebrate texts and music from three great monotheistic religions. Often intersecting, yet frequently at war through nearly 2,000 years, all three groups claim Jerusalem as their spiritual home. The program of songs, recitations, and instrumental pieces was conceived by viola da gamba and vielle player, conductor, and composer Savall and poet Manuel Forcano and recorded last year on a two-CD set under the Alia Vox label.
The evening began with a rousing “fanfare of Jericho” on shofars (ram’s-horn trumpets), anafirs (long, straight metal trumpets), and drums, loud enough at least to shake the walls of Sanders Theater. The first program “chapter,” titled “The Heavenly Peace: The Prophecy of the Apocalypse and of the Last Judgment,” opened with soprano Monserrat Figueras’s exquisite singing of a mystical Sibylline oracle text in Greek from the 3rd century B.C. to an Aramaic melody. Next we heard a prophetic text from the Koran sung by a male choir, followed by a 13th-century polyphonic Latin motet on a Christian (Cathar) Apocalyptic text.
Chapter II traced the history of Jerusalem as a Jewish city from the time of David to the liberation of the city by the Maccabees in 164 B.C., marked by an instrumental dance, and the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., commemorated by the singing of Psalm 137 (“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem”). Medieval Jerusalem as a Christian city was presented as the focal point of the Crusades, with rousing songs and stirring sackbuts and drums. Manuel Forcano, who recited the Talmudic text in the previous segment, read Pope Urban II’s first call to the Crusade in French. Jerusalem as a city of pilgrimage for Christians, Muslims, and Jews began with the reading of the Spanish nun Egeria’s 4th-century account of her visit to Jerusalem and concluded with one of the delightful Cantigas de Santa María, folk legends of the miracles of the Virgin collected by Alfonso the Wise in the middle of the 13th century. The highlight of the Arabic and Ottoman segment was certainly the appearance of the Sufi group Al-Darwish from Galilee, with white-skirted Khaled Abu Ali executing a slowly twirling dance.
Jerusalem as a city of refuge and exile was presented in a series of haunting laments, from the Sephardic Jews expelled from 15th-century Spain to the survivors of the Armenian massacre, the European Holocaust, and the Palestinian displacement. In a final plea for earthly peace, a simple melody handed down in several oral traditions was sung first by individual participants in their respective languages, then by all the performers together in a multilingual choral version symbolizing the unifying power of music. A fanfare of shofars, oriental trumpets, and percussion, “Against the barriers of the Spirit,” concluded the evening on a hopeful note.
English translations of the texts projected on a wide screen and extensive program notes were helpful in making sense of individual numbers, and accompaniment on various medieval European and Near Eastern instruments provided some sonic and textural variety. Jordi Savall and Montserrat Figueras are well known for their meticulously researched and convincing performances of medieval, Renaissance, and baroque repertories in the European tradition and have now turned their attentions farther afield. Notwithstanding the star quality of both vocal and instrumental performers, however, and the laudable purpose behind the program, the essential similarity — at least to western ears — of Near Eastern melodic and instrumental traditions coupled with the brevity of the selections left one with the impression not of the unifying power of music but of a well-intentioned potpourri that did not add up to a meaningful presentation of fascinating yet unfamiliar musical traditions.