Those fortunate enough to have heard Jordi Savall (and friends) last Friday at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival heard a concert they will probably remember for many years to come. Savall’s acute intelligence, imagination, and heart shine through in all he played. A major rock star of the early music world, he performed with two other extraordinary players, Dimitri Psonis, who played a santur and a Moorish guitar, and David Mayoral, who played an instrument resembling a hammered dulcimer. Both these men appear in all sorts of other ensembles (ethnic, fusion, Medieval to Baroque), yet the three of them played together here as if they had done so their entire lives. Throughout the four-part program, the trio sounded like it was in the midst of a world-class jam session, eyes and ears so focused on each other that the time kept slipping by all too quickly. It was hard to separate what was improvised from what might have been written down or even just rehearsed. From the first piece, they held me (and my companion) under their spell from which we emerged only on our long drive home.
Friday’s program was entitled “Orient-Occident: A Dialogue of Souls,” a travelogue through space and time embracing the many traditions around the Mediterranean. The music and the instruments (especially in the CD) originated in Christian, Jewish and Muslim Iberian peninsula, the stampitte of Medieval Italy; the improvisations and dances are Arabo-Andalusian, from Morocco, Israel, Persia, Afghanistan, and the old Ottoman Empire. What most fascinated me were the common musical threads between these pieces from all over the Mediterranean map, and more importantly, how new and exciting they sound when played by three such extraordinary musicians. As the program noted, quoting the French writer Amin Maalouf: “If we are to restore some hope to our disoriented humanity, we must go beyond a mere dialogue of cultures and beliefs towards a dialogue of souls . . . hasn’t that, since the dawn of human adventure, been the overriding purpose of art?”
In addition to so much seeming improvised, even the program remained in flux until after it went to the printers. It was often hard to figure out what was being played, as one long song seemed to run into the next, and neither seemed to jive with either of our two programs. It didn’t matter. What continued to beguile were fabulous performances and the instruments, and happily, after intermission Savall spoke about each of them. The drummer had an eclectic collection of tambourines, wooden sticks, and drums of many sizes, including a large one that is still stuck on an airplane somewhere. Savall had a small orchestra of his own — his usual viola da gamba, rebec, a lyre, and a rebab, all bowed. The most fascinating instrument was Psonis’s Moorish guitar and a santur, a Persian hammered dulcimer, a trapezoid-shaped box with 72 strings sounding quite Appalachian and entirely delightful. The two sticks he uses are extremely lightweight with small cushions on their ends, like elongated chicken wishbones. After hearing Psonis play a dazzling piece on his santur, Savall remarked, “It looks so easy!” Everyone had a good laugh. None of these instruments looked easy, even the wooden sticks that were hit together on the 2 and 5 in a piece in 6/8. Even that was done with artfulness.
Savall has not only recorded over 170 CDs but also has been a tireless concert performer, teacher, invaluable researcher, and creator of important musical and cultural projects. One of his aims has been to demonstrate that early music need not be elitist. His success can only partially be measured by a vast amount of honors. A genius of a viol player — hardly the most glamorous of instruments — Savall fills concert halls 140 times a year. [Ed: On June 9 and 10, Savall performed with Psonis and Mayoral at the Berkeley Festival of early music, where Blue Heron also gave its concert before performing it in Boston.] Both times I’ve seen him, there was a frenzy to buy his CDs at intermission and at the end of each concert. Last time I bought four, this time seven. And I am not a CD buyer.
Two events at the concert were unexpected; there was such electricity among these players that I was not at all surprised to see the lightning in the background for what seemed like 20 minutes, sometimes coming in sheets, lighting up the glass backdrop of Shalin Liu Hall like a yellow curtain. But the concert’s biggest drama occurred both off and on stage after the expected standing ovation. (Unlike many concerts I’ve attended, this one was totally deserved.) This past November, Savall lost his longtime musical partner and wife, the early music soprano Montserrat Figueras, and had arranged for a recording of her to voice waft through the speakers, through which, I believe, he also played with her. The three quietly accompanied her exquisite voice as a cosmic back-up ensemble. It was a poignant extension of yet more breaking down of boundaries and borders, this concert’s theme. Savall reminded the audience, “We die only when people forget us.”