For many music lovers, the viola da gamba is a quaint instrument trotted out periodically for performances of Bach's "St. Matthew" Passion and a handful of other Baroque works.
But for Jordi Savall, and the people he has inspired, the instrument is a passion itself, indeed an industry.
With nearly 100 recordings to his credit as conductor or gamba player, Savall has seen his recording company, Auvidis, launch a new label, Fontalis, devoted to his recordings alone.
Orange County won't see him play his favorite instrument, however, Thursday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.
Instead, he'll be wielding the baton over the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in Bach's Four Orchestral Suites in a concert sponsored by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.
"When I was was studying the cello, for curiosity I played different pieces that were originally written for the viola da gamba," Savall, 58, said in a recent phone interview from his home in his native city of Barcelona, Spain.
"That made me want to see a viola da gamba and play the music on one. This music was so beautiful. I was attracted to it."
He had been studying cello at the Barcelona Conservatory when he found himself drawn to the earlier instrument, which had its heyday in the 16th and 17th centuries. By the middle of the 18th century, the viol family had largely been superseded by the larger-sounding viola and cello.
"A viola da gamba is totally different from a cello," Savall said. "It's closer to the lute--a lute with a bow, in fact. With six strings, frets like a guitar, a softer sound, it's more rich in different colors.
"At that point, what interested me was the sound, the fact that [the viola da gamba] was much more interesting to play and also the possibility of playing music on the instrument for which it was intended."
At the time, in 1965, when Savall began his new work, the period instrument movement was still in its infancy. But over the years, recordings have helped make these instruments reach a broader public.
"A lot of people can now listen to this music at home," Savall said.
One reason the viol family passed into history is because other instruments were capable of being heard in large halls. But, for Savall, the size of an auditorium is secondary to the quality of its acoustics.
"We have played Monteverdi in a hall that seats 2,600 and there was no problem," he said. "You can have a very small space, and yet there might not be too much music there. Quality, not the dimensions, is the important thing."
The work of important gamba composers such as Marin Marais, Diego Ortiz, Christopher Tye and a host of others, allow the player a great deal of personal expression.
"What is important is respect for the text, for the music, and the composer's intentions--and the truth, the sensibility of the music. You can find many different interpretations of the same piece, totally different approaches. Yet if it's played with all these elements, it will be truthful and beautiful.
"For me, playing the Four Suites by Bach, this interpretation is going to be different from last year's, and [from] next year's and maybe from [one in] 2008."
The artist's growth is one reason for that, but another is that over the years, the players themselves have gotten better.
"Generally the principal difference today from when I started is that we can control the instruments much better," Savall said of the technical advances that have come from more musicians specializing in early instruments. "We have more freedom now and can play better. I think this is an important condition, to have more freedom."
With this freedom comes responsibility, Savall said.
"Basically, we have to remember Bach and all these musicians were great improvisers. They played only this music their whole lives, and we have to approach their music with great respect but also with a lot of fantasy and a lot of sensitivity.
"Fantasy is the necessary connection between the score and the music and the musicians and the audience in the hall. Without this fantasy, the music can not reach the person hearing the concert.
"It's like an actor in a play. The text can be from Shakespeare, but if the actor is not acting well, what is he creating? The audience will not be touched. We have the same problem."
* Jordi Savall will conduct the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in Bach's Four Orchestral Suites at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. The concert is sponsored by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. $28-$33. (949) 854-4646.
Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at email@example.com.