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Monday, February 6, 2017

Concert Review: Symphony of a Thousand Years

Jordi Savall opens La Serenissima at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The elegant and scholarly Jordi Savall and friend. Image by Molina Visuals.
A millennium is a long time, but not in the hands of Jordi Savall. Mr. Savall took the main stage of Carnegie Hall last Friday night, to lead the opening concert of the three week La Serenissima festival. This is a citywide celebration of the music, culture and rich history of Venice, Italy, curated by Mr. Savall, a musicologist, conductor and master of the viol, an 18th century instrument played between the knees.

For the first concert (titled The Millenarian Venice: Gateway to the East) Mr. Savall built an ambitious program: a musical tour through a millennium of music, starting with early medieval works and ending with Mozart and Beethoven. The stage of Carnegie featured a tiered setup, with projections that offered supertitle translations and brief historical guideposts to the year of each piece and the relevant historical events in the history of the Republic of Venice.

Venice came to life as a trading post but to prominence as a colony of the Byzantine Empire. Starting in 726 AD, the city at the northern end of the Adriatic became an independent state, with a long, powerful reach thanks to its enterprising, sea-faring citizenry and rich merchant class. These merchants also made the city a capital for arts and culture, serving as the portal for church music, Italian song, Eastern dance music and later names like Vivaldi, Verdi and Wagner.

The concert opened with a ringing of brazen bells and medieval chant, sung by the men of the Orthodox-Byzantine Vocal Ensemble. This was vastly different from Gregorian chant, as the harmonies use a different system and the voices combine in a different way. The first half alternated these chants with songs and kinetic dances from Africa and Asia Minor, providing a much needed kick in the austere atmosphere.

The early works featured the most exotic instruments: the shawm, the cornetto, the dulcian (an early bassoon) and the lyra, a cousin of the rebec which moaned plaintively in Mr. Savall's hands. Progress moved inexorably forward through the long time-stream, culminating in the music of Catholic masses, the Jewish ghetto and French and German music as Europe moved out of the medieval era toward the flowering of the Renaissance.

The largest work on this ambitious program was by Claudio Monteverdi: the epic cantata Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. Sung by members of the vocal ensemble La Capella Reial de Catalunya, this is an early quasi-opera from the creator of the earliest surviving operas. It is a taut drama about a knight who fights another that he does not know is his (female) lover in disguise. Raw, bloody and powerful, it made an impact showing how Venice pointed the way forward in the creation of music and art.

As if the sun had risen over the Grand Canal, familiar names started to fill the stage. Music by Vivaldi and Mozart followed, with the latter's Rondo alla Turca getting a raucous re-orchestration. Members of Hespèrion XXI and Les Concerts de Nations combined their resources here, powering this familiar music with a bold and wild energy that does not emerge from the fingers of the average pianist. Mr. Savall either conducted or led from the bow, the more familiar tenor viol now between his knees.

The concert culminated with the sun setting on the Venetian Empire and the fall of that great Republic to the forces of Napoleon in 1797. The song chosen was apt: the Allegretto from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, set to words by Luigi Bordese. Now titled "La nuit es sombre" and incorporating musical ideas from the Fifth as well, it was a fitting completion to this long journey. A coda followed, with Mr. Savall addressing the patient audience, then leading a triple setting of Dona nobis pacem in three different musical styles. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.