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Music Review

Medieval Sounds Modern in the Hands of Hesperion XXI


The surprising thing about the arresting medieval Spanish music program ("Diaspora Sefardi: Roots and Memory") Thursday in Founders Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center is how contemporary much of it sounded.

This was partly because, as Jordi Savall, director of Hesperion XXI, said between selections, he and his group were playing the music in a modern fashion, not as the works would have been played 500 or more years ago. But it was also because emotions remain the same, despite the passage of time.

Indeed, the topics of the songs sung lovingly by soprano Montserrat Figueras, Savall's wife, could be found on any pop chart today: love, betrayal, pain at separation, even dysfunctional families.

For hip raciness, there was "Por Alli Paso un Cavallero" (There Passed That Way a Knight), in which a woman offers to bed a handsome knight, then curses him when he refuses. The repeat of the first stanza at the end could just be a formality of the style, but it also suggested that the plain-spoken offer wasn't the first the speaker had made in her life.

Another component of the currency of the program (to be repeated Sunday at Royce Hall, UCLA) is that much of it does continue into the present, under the rubric of world music. Somewhere along the line, Western art music departed from its popular sources and communal fabric to take on an increasingly separate existence. This music didn't.

So while for some in the Founders Hall audience the program had aspects of discovery, almost exoticism, for others, especially dance aficionados, it presented old friends, albeit in slightly different guise.

Savall indicated the geographical location of each of the more than 20 selections--from Algiers to Sofia, Alexandria to Sarajevo. While supporting the thematic topic of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal, this listing also emphasized the continuity of a past culture and the assimilation of elements of a new one.

The chief difference between Savall's ensemble and a modern one consists of the historical instruments Hesperion plays--gorgeously soft-toned psaltery (Begona Olavide), medieval harp (Arianna Savall), flutes (Pedro Memelsdorff) and the intriguingly named lira, vielle and rebab (Jordi Savall).

Other instruments--oud (Yair Dalal), percussion (Pedro Estevan) and sarod (Kenneth Zuckermann)--would not be out of place in a contemporary group.

All were played with virtuosity and subtlety. The intimacy of Founders Hall (300-plus seats) allowed the music to be apprehended gorgeously.


* Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI will repeat the program Sunday at 4 p.m. at Royce Hall, UCLA. $25 to $40. ($9 for UCLA students.) (310) 825-2101.

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