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2010-09-30

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Jordi Savall revitalizes rarely heard Rennaissance music

By Joe Cadagin, Daily Arts Writer
Published September 26, 2010

“Passionate” and “improvisational” are not terms many would associate with the meticulous and ornate sound of Baroque music — until they encounter the work of Jordi Savall. Dubbed an “early-music superstar” by the New York Times, Catalan musician Savall has been promoting Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music since the early 1970s. This Thursday, Savall will make his third UMS appearance in a concert at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church exploring the development of Hispanic music.

The Route to the New World: From Spain to Mexico

Thursday at 8 p.m.
St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church
Tickets from $35

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Armed with his trusty viola de gamba (an early string instrument related to the cello), Savall leads a small army of ensembles and even manages his own recording company.

“Jordi has brought to modern ears very high-quality musical performances of interesting and sometimes unknown, or little-known, repertoire,” said School of Music, Theatre & Dance professor Louise Stein, who has known Savall since 1979 and worked with him on several occasions.

“As a solo viola de gamba player Jordi is unmatched … I think that’s where he’s at his best.”

For Thursday’s concert, Savall will lead a combined 20-person ensemble consisting of singers, guitarists and period-instrument players. The group includes two of Savall’s ensembles specializing in early Hispanic music. La Capella Reial de Catalunya is an ensemble made up of vocal soloists, while Hespèrion XXI is largely an instrumental group. Joining Savall’s two groups is the Mexican ensemble Tembembe Ensamble Continuo, whose distinct style combines Baroque Hispanic and contemporary Latin American music.

The UMS concert will showcase Savall’s latest project, “The Route to the New World: From Spain to Mexico,” which examines the formation of Hispanic music. The program draws from a variety of sources and styles within the genre, revealing the common musical structures that define Hispanic music across the globe and across the centuries.

“Most of the pieces are late Renaissance and Baroque pieces,” said Stein, who is an expert in early-Hispanic music. “There are pieces from the late 16th century, from the 17th century and from the early 18th century ... One is from Peru. The others are from Spain or Mexico, which was then called New Spain. Then there are more modern traditional popular Mexican pieces.”

Adopting the infusive style of Tembembe Ensamble Continuo, the collective ensemble will combine earlier Baroque technique with more modern dance steps such as jarocho and huasteco.

Stein described one particularly unique piece on the program, “Ritual: Hanacpachap cussicuinin” ascribed to Juan Pérez Bocanegra.

“Juan Pérez Bocanegra was a Spanish-born Franciscan priest who worked in Cuzco in Peru in the early 17th century as a missionary, and this piece is a processional hymn put into Quechua (the language of the Incas),” Stein said. “We don’t know who the composer was, but it was published in Pérez Bocanegra’s ritual book of 1631, and it’s the first piece of polyphony to be printed in the New World.”

As a genre, Hispanic Baroque music relies heavily on guitars, but has other distinct characteristics that set it apart from other music of the time.

“I would say it’s very passionate music,” Stein said. “And in performance it calls for a lot of improvisation. So it’s a music that looks, on the page, very simple but requires a lot from the performer. And it has very distinct rhythmic patterns that are different from the patterns that distinguish Italian Baroque music, for example.”

Stein went on to point out that the title for Savall’s concert, “The Route to the New World,” may be misleading for audience members since it implies that Hispanic music changed or “evolved” over the centuries. As an alternative view, Stein sees Hispanic music as a web instead of a timeline.

“I don’t like to use the words ‘progression’ or ‘evolution,’ because that implies that things went from worse to better, or from somehow unsophisticated to sophisticated, and we don’t want to think that way,” she said. "But it’s interesting to think about the many crossings back and forth between high culture and traditional culture or art music and vernacular, more folk music … There’s definitely what I like to think of as a cultural amalgamation.”

When walking through a city in Peru, Stein experienced an illustration of this concept in an encounter with a street musician playing folk music on a Baroque-era harp.

“(There is a) crossing of traditions,” Stein said, “and in some of what we think of as popular or modern folk music of Mexico and Latin America, there are Baroque techniques and rhythms that have survived and flourished in slightly new ways.”