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A new take on 1492

Jordi Savall puts world history in perspective in 'Lost Paradises,' his program celebrating a golden period in Spain.

February 15, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

"We are not sole owners of our past" is how Jordi Savall begins his notes to "Lost Paradises," the exquisitely played program of music from 1400 to 1506 that he presented at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Wednesday night. What went unsaid in this concert of music from various cultures that combined and conflicted in 16th century Spain, and particularly in Granada, was that we are not sole owners of our present either.

Jews and Muslims lived together with Christians in Granada for a golden moment. However uneasy, their interactions produced a flourishing culture of arts and sciences until the Jews were exiled, Muslims were ordered to convert, and heretics were burned at the stake. Around the same time, Columbus discovered the New World. Vistas opened and closed in confusing ways. Animosities that arose 500 years ago play out today in the Middle East and elsewhere. The music tells a remarkable story.

A master of the viola da gamba, Savall is a star of the early music movement. His captivating playing on the soundtrack of "Tous les Matins du Monde" (All the Mornings of the World), the 1991 biopic about the French Baroque gambist/composers Sainte Colombe and Marin Marais, gave his then-obscure period instrument a minute or two of fame.

The bass gamba, which is played between the legs like a cello, produces an attractively antiquated sound, and Savall himself might have been perfectly typecast as a scholarly, elegant, sophisticated, lyrically inclined gambist born to serenade the soul. But this Catalan musician, who is fond of saying that a player's relationship with the gamba must include pleasure and pain, that the instrument's sound can caress or cut like a sharp knife, has lately turned the seemingly insular instrument into a tool to examine global issues.

"Lost Paradises" is a stage realization of a sumptuous book and two-CD set that Savall released two years ago. Savall's forces are varied, including his seven-member instrumental ensemble (Hesperian XXI), a male vocal quartet (La Capella Reial de Catalunya), a solo soprano (Montserrat Figueras) and two narrators (who recite and intone in Arabic, Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew, Spanish and English).

Savall begins with a 2,000-year-old invocation from Seneca's "Medea" found in Columbus' diaries, foretelling the revelations of new worlds. He then examines an enormous variety of historical sources: Sufi music, Sephardic prayers, Andalusian dances of the period, the polyphonic liturgical style of the Roman Catholic Church, music of the Spanish court. He even includes an example of Amerindian music for flute and drums that Columbus might have brought back from the New World.

Yet the worlds revealed in this music remind us of the new worlds of fusion global music opening up all around us today. Manuscripts in libraries don't sing to us. We speculate about the sounds. We imagine improvisations of the period with ears that have heard only the traditions of today's world musicians. Savall regains lost worlds only through his imagination.

The connections are vivid and startling nonetheless. The second part of the concert, for instance, began with the Sephardic Diaspora of 1492. Savall, who played a soprano viol for this concert, began with a haunting Sephardic lament.

This eloquent, complex solo was echoed by a Moroccan musician, Driss El Maloumi, on oud, an Arabic lute. Arabic music complemented, completed and changed Jewish music. Both instruments were quiet. The musical dialogue was subtle, in agreement but not in the same language. The musicians ultimately went their own ways in sadness, but not in enmity.

Savall's presentation was somber, maybe too somber. The narrators were sincere. But the complex ideas behind texts and music from a wide range of sources were such that ideas and sounds continually ricocheted off one another.

The music-making, however, was ever flexible and always of stunning beauty. Figueras, Savall's wife and a singer with a cult following in the early music world, was, I thought, underused, but that only made the few numbers she sang all the more special. Although she turns 60 this year, her voice has retained its purity.

That purity, and, indeed, the purity of all the music-making, went far to forestall controversy. Savall's idea that none of us are the sole owners of history -- and that includes our own -- insists that we honor all history. The beauty that resulted from his efforts Wednesday showed what is possible. Disney was well-attended by early music fans, but, unfortunately, not by politicians.


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