Peace/War, Old/New, Barcelona/New York
February 22, 2009
I first heard the now-famous Hespèrion XXI more than twenty years ago in a not very large church in an evocative little square near the cathedral in Barcelona. They were not world-famous then, and I kept wondering during that concert how they would go over in New York. The wild applause at a 9 o’clock concert in Alice Tully Hall tonight, on the first evening of the Hall’s formal opening festivities, certainly answered that question.
But, as I sat in the sparkling new concert room, I couldn’t help meditating on abounding ironies. The church where I first heard them, dedicated to Sant Felip Neri (whose first oratory, in Rome, gave us the term oratorio for the new kind of sacred stories in music performed there), is on the edge of the old Jewish quarter (the Call), and tonight Hespèrion was performing a whole concert of Jewish music of the Sephardic Diaspora. (And it was only two weeks and two blocks away that I heard The New York Festival of Song serving up their own feast of Diaspora repertory.)
Anyone who visits the old city (the Barri Gòtic) of Barcelona is likely to relish the small, irregularly-shaped square, the Plaça Sant Felip Neri, where I first heard Hespèrion. The two things I remember most have been the peaceable trickle of the fountain and the highly disturbing bullet pockmarks remaining on the façade of the church from the Civil War. Churches were, not surprisingly, the favorite place to line up priests for their elimination by the Communists. But, not to be outdone, Franco’s fascists bombed the church from the air, killing dozens of children who had taken refuge inside.
So there we sat in the splendor of Tully Hall listening to this music, painted largely in hues of lament, that had been sung and played by people driven out of Spain in 1492 (among them, Toledo ancestors of my own, as it happens) to many corners of the earth. Thus we heard Jewish music (to Spanish-language texts) from Rhodes, Sarajevo, Turkey, and other places, performed by two Catalans, a Greek, a Moroccan, and an amazing percussionist of origin unmentioned in his program bio but whom I assume, from his name, to be an Iberian of some variety. (We heard, not just the dutiful drum beats we often get in old or “primitive” repertory, but playing of a complexity to rival that required for thorny contemporary scores.)
It wasn’t many years after that Barcelona encounter with Jordi Savall and his group that he was rocketed to international fame by the movie Tous Les Matins du monde, and he has since then gone from strength to strength — as has Hespèrion, which naturally varies in membership according to the quite wide repertory they perform. Their Diáspora Sefardí music has been issued in a two-disc set (and Grammy-nominated). Thus can modern media gather up a dispersed repertory so that it can be heard in a united context. It’s a good time to be alive, in many ways.
Here’s a little more illustration of a new-media type: Give yourself a mental-health break and check out this video to see the little square, an oasis of peace despite its horrible marks of past inhumanity; and this one that commemorates the 70th anniversary of the Nationalist bombing of the baroque Esglèsia de Sant Felip Neri.
The performers heard tonight:
Jordi Savall, director, lira, rebab
Montserrat Figueras, soprano (who also played an unspecified zither-like instrument)
Driss el Maloumi, oud
Dimitri Psonis, santur and moresca
David Mayoral, percussion
Alba (instr.) Morocco
Pregoneros van y vienen Sarajevo/Bosnia and Herzegovina
Longe de mi (instr.) Sofia/Bulgaria
Levantose el Conde Niño Salónica/Greece
Danse de l’âme (oud) Morocco
Nani, nani Morocco
Paxarico tu te llamas (instr.) Sarajevo/Bosnia and Herzegovina
Por allí pasó un cavallero Turquia/Turkey
A la una yo nací (flauta & perc.) Sarajevo/Bosnia and Herzegovina
El Rey de Francia Esmirna/Turkey
Hermoza muchachica (instr.) Jerusalem/Israel
El moro de Antequera Rhodes/Greece
En la Santa Helena (instr.) Sofia/Bulgaria
Por que llorax blanca niña Sarajevo/Bosnia and Herzegovina
Las estrellas de los cielos (instr.) Alexandria/Egypt
Una matica de ruda Rhodes/Greece
UPDATE: Allan Kozinn gives more good information in his New York Times review.