Memorable musical and emotional experience from Jordi Savall, Hespèrion XXI and Tembembe Ensamble Continuo

New Zealand Festival 2018

Hespèrion XXI and Tembembe Ensamble Continuo
Folias Antiguas y Criollas: From the Ancient World to the New World
Directed by Jordi Savall

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 24 February, 7:30 pm

I always find it interesting, and indeed relevant, to look back to find when international musicians were in New Zealand previously. My own reviews for The Evening Post, and then The Dominion Post record Jordi Savall’s coming to the then New Zealand International Arts Festival in both 1996 (when they gave concerts in both the Town Hall and St Mary of the Angels) and 2000, which was the last time we saw Savall’s wife, Montserrat Figueras. She was to have come again with Jordi’s ensemble for Chamber Music New Zealand in November 2008, but could not. She died in 2011.

I have also seen a media reference to them at WOMAD 2012 in New Plymouth.

The 2008 programme created a broad exploration of Medieval and Renaissance music, mainly across the Mediterranean region from Morocco and Spain to Sarajevo, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Istanbul and Iran, with glances at France and England.

Their programmes today still often encompass comparably wide regions; but for us the focus was narrower, if more in-depth. On Saturday, it was the pervasive influence of a simple tune or bass figure (which can, according to taste, be called a ground bass or basso continuo), ‘La Folía’. This the concert’s title, Folías Antiguas y Criollas: From the Ancient World to the New World.

Savall’s Programme essays
Savall’s own programme note points to the significance of the ‘dialogue’ between medieval and Renaissance European music and the music of Spain that was deeply influenced after it travelled following Columbus to the New World, by ancient oral traditions of pre-Colomban as well as African cultures.

So I must first express admiration for Jordi Savall’s essays in the programme book, and to repeat what I write frequently, lamenting the charging for programmes. From observation, fewer than half of the audience had programmes, declining them when the price of $10 was mentioned. It is a seriously misguided policy to devote time and expense to preparing programmes, and then to charge so much, or even to change at all, so that many turn away from the programme sellers; especially where they contain significant and fascinating information, that might just help educate an audience and help them put in context what they are hearing. Our audiences are left poorly educated enough in our school system that any chance to broaden horizons and deepen knowledge should be grasped.

Universality of La Folía
The programme’s main theme was the phenomenon of the Folía, and the first bracket was devoted to ancient examples of it. They were almost all in the form of variations or ‘diferencias’ on the basic theme or bass line that is La Folía (or Follia in other languages).

Savall identifies the importance of two particular ancient cultures that were important in assimilating and integrating Iberian music. They were the cultures of the Llanero and Huasteco oral traditions, together with Mestizo folk music derived from African cultures. The Llanero is the grassland region of eastern Colombia and western Venezuela; the remnant of Huasteco speakers are mainly in the state of San Lius Potosi north of Mexico City and some in Veracruz.

What struck me very particularly was the affinity of music from very different cultures that nevertheless had common roots, or that had merely been influenced by different cultural traditions: it all stimulated enjoyment of the interesting and attractive connections and contrasts; for me, and I had to observe in most of the sold-out auditorium.

The first piece, La Spagna by Diego Ortiz who lived through most of the 16th century, gave us a clear basis by which to compare other treatments of the folia and other Portuguese, Spanish and (mainly) Mexican music of the 1500 to mid-1800 period. Over those years La Folía might be regarded as a kind of symbol of the evolution of popular earlier music into more sophisticated, court and ecclesiastic music from the 16th century. And the theme was brought emphatically into ‘classical music’ by Lully, Alessandro Scarlatti, Marais, Corelli, Geminiani, Vivaldi, Bach and much later in Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli.

There followed a couple of ‘folía’ improvisations, the second of them the famous but anonymous Folías Rodrigo Martinez where percussionist David Mayoral’s drum arrived and an apparently unidentified female musician played castanets.

The players and their instruments
I should comment here that while the players were listed with some details of the instruments they played, it would have been interesting (and for me at least, necessary in writing this) to have known who was who on stage along with their holding up the instrument or instruments they played. Photos of the many unfamiliar Mexican and Central American – Huasteco and Llanera – instruments would have been good value in a $10 programme.

Savall himself, seated on the far left, played treble and bass viols with extraordinary subtlety and virtuosity, contributing the most important melodic and emotional element of the performances; his direction of his ensembles colleagues seemed almost casual, though in fact precise and energising. For ensembles they were: five named as of Hespèrion XXI, and six of the Mexican Tembembe Ensamble Continuo.

Savall’s own group consisted of the notable traditional harpist Andrew Lawrence King, seated centre whose contribution was important as was David Mayoral with a variety of percussion; Xavier Diaz-Latorre played guitar and theorbo and Xavier Puertas the violone, or large viol, which I might have called a bass viol had that name not been taken by Savall’s own somewhat smaller ‘bass viol’.

Tembembe Ensamble Continuo comprised three instrumentalists, two singers (Ada Coronel and Zenen Zeferino) who also played, respectively the vihuela and jarana jarocha, both guitar-like instruments; and a dancer (Donaji Esparza).

The three instrumentalists: Leopoldo Novoa played marimbol (‘a plucked box musical instrument of the Caribbean’ {Wikipedia} held between the lower legs) and two kinds of Huasteco guitars, a Llanera harp and a ‘quijada de caballo’, literally a horse’s jaw; Enrique Barona commanded a huapanguera, the large guitar-like instrument of the Huasteco region of Veracruz, a jarana jarocha and mosquito, other varieties of Veracruz guitars, maracas and others; and Ulises Martinez played the violin and sang.

However, all of this variety went for little as there was no attempt to identify the instruments and their sounds.

The composers and their evolution
While several pieces were by anonymous composers, named composers included – 16th century Antonio de Cabezon, Pedro Guerrero and the Italian, Antonio Valente, whose improvisatory ‘Gallarda napolitana’ incorporated some satirical New Zealand references from Zenen Zeferino, which some of the audience obviously caught, but I missed: I couldn’t share the laughter.

Francisco Correa de Arauxo and Gaspar Sanz lived mainly in the 17th century (Sanz featured memorably, for me, in the 2014 Festival recitals by distinguished guitarist Hopkinson Smith). The female dancer Donaji Esparza, appeared during Sanz’s La petenera. She brought a simple though striking grace to the performance. In her earlier offerings, her approach was simply complementary to the music, with clear though unostentatious footwork; but her later contributions displayed a more impressive Zapeteado style that involved her feet becoming percussive instruments: virtuosic and energetic, though still without egotism. However, it would be a mistake to have expected a flamenco character in her performance.

Santiago de Murcia lived mainly in the 18th century. He represented the Huasteco culture of Mexico, with the famous El Cielito Lindo (not to be confused with the hugely popular mid-20th century song of the same name that’s almost become Mexico’s national anthem). It was in Santiago’s enchanting Cielito Lindo that Zenen Zeferino first appeared, his large commanding voice (amplified indeed but its vigorous character was clear enough); he was joined by Ada Coronel, flowers in her hair, a perfect complementary presence who proved just as vivid and confident a performer as Zeferino.

The second half began with El balajú jarocho, music of the Huasteco culture (Moncayo’s famous Huapango is of the same source, the Vera Cruz province) and was one of several expressing particular joy.

Towards the end
The penultimate bracket consisted of 18th century composer (contemporary with Vivaldi and Bach) Antonio Martin y Coll’s Diferencias sobre las folías, perhaps ‘variations based on Las folias’ which might have completely summed up the history of La folía; they varied in tempo and mood enormously, almost encompassing the whole range of human emotions:  Jordi Savall on bass viol, and step by step, Andrew Laurence King’s harp, Mayoral’s drum; castanets, other percussion and the great variety of guitar-variants from the two ensembles.

And at the end, the final Jarabe loco (jarocha) by Antonio Valente; Huasteco music again. The title apparently means ‘crazy syrup’), and the subtitle is ‘Gallarda napolitana’ (Neapolitan galliard? There’s a Savall CD that includes it entitled: ‘Renaisance Music for the Court of the Kings of Spain’). There was a hypnotic sobriety about it.

One doesn’t look for especial musical complexity or sophistication (in a Teutonic sense) in an exploration of the diverting and extremely lively musical culture that has always characterised the Mediterranean world, and in the cultures across the Atlantic that developed from it with a multitude of indigenous influences. Just profound musical delight in styles that are both largely foreign to northern Europe but which supply us with an indispensable counter-balance of musical delight, emotional exhilaration, and rhythmic and melodic energy.

The audience erupted ecstatically at the end.

Jordi Savall is 76 and looks and performs as if 20 years younger. Let’s hope he brings us another of his diverting programmes very soon.