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.

Cervantes’ quadricentenary through diverting music of the 17th to 20th centuries

A Tribute to Cervantes

Spanish music from the 17th to the 20th century
Gaspar Sanz, Boccherini, Enrique Granados, and songs by Federico García Lorca (presuably words and music) and by Manuel de Falla, Antonio Alvarez Alonzo, Manuel Lopez Quiroga, Santiago Lopez Gozalo, Pascual Marquina

Manuel Breiga – violin and Adrian Fernandez – guitar

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 27 March, 6 pm

This year is the 400th anniversary not just of the death of Shakespeare, as the whole world knows, but also of Miguel Cervantes. Not only the same year, but also the same month – April – and even more surprising just one day apart! S. on 23 and C. on 22 April.

Cervantes was longer-lived, having been born in 1547. In an introduction it was pointed out that the two players were, serendipitously, from La Mancha which was the home of Cervantes’ hero.

The concert was supported by the Spanish Embassy in Wellington and the Spanish and Latinamerican Club,

Violinist Manuel Breiga introduced each bracket (in Spanish, and his words were translated). Evidently he gave no information about the composers or their music, other than the titles, which were, in any case, in the printed programme. Perhaps, given that it was a free concert and much of the audience was there for Spanish rather than musical reasons, this was acceptable.

The celebration of Cervantes was marked with the use of music written around 70 years after his own time. Don Quixote was written between 1600 and 1613 while Gaspar Sanz was born 24 years after Cervantes died (Sanz’s dates: 1640 to 1710) and most of his music was written between 1670 and 1700.

It was interesting to hear the six pieces by Sanz, since I had been awakened to his significance by the concerts given at the 2014 festival by the American lutenist Hopkinson Smith who played a number of Sanz’s pieces, some of which were used by Joachim Rodrigo in his charming Fantasia para un gentilhombre. At least three of the pieces Rodrigo chose were also played at this concert.

Tunes from the first dance, Españoletas, the fourth, Fanfarria de la caballeria de Nápoles and the sixth, Canarios, were all used in the Rodrigo Fantasia. They were divertingly varied in style, rhythm, mood, from the forthright Españoletas, to the more lively Gallarda y Villano and Rujero y paradetas, the latter enlivened with a shift to a skipping, triple time, in a middle section.  Though the violin led the way most of the time, the guitar had a long solo passage in a dance in six/eight, dotted rhythm.  The big confident sound produced by the amplified instruments gave a very different impression of music from an age of discreet taste, though not one that would have seemed inappropriate to most listeners; and it’s not merely a question of using early music in a modern way on modern instruments; Rodrigo did that very successfully.

The passacaglia movement from the famous Boccherini quintet, Op 30 No 6 (Música nocturna en las calles de Madrid, to give its title in Spanish) lay well for these two instruments – it survives all sorts of arrangements.

Only a fortnight ago the violin/guitar duo, Duo Tapas played at St Andrew’s, and they played one of the Granados dances that these Spaniards chose: the Oriental from his Twelve Spanish Dances. This evening we also heard No 5 of that set, Andaluza, the most popular of them. Even though they were written for the piano, the latter dance has become so familiar on the violin that Breiga’s performance sounded perfectly idiomatic; the Breiga-Fernandez duo played both Granados pieces splendidly.

Then they played a group of Spanish folk songs by Federico García Lorca. They were all from the Trece canciones espanolas antiguas – ‘13 old Spanish songs’. Breiga referred to Lorca as both poet and composer which came as a surprise to me. My impression from glancing at Internet references, was that the music was either traditional or by others; after all Lorca called them ‘old’. However, the website IMSLP states categorically that the composer is Federico García Lorca. The pieces were characteristic, genuine, perfumed in various ways, though they did rather cry out for a voice; they are all sung beautifully on YouTube by Teresa Berganza, and a few are also sung by Victoria de los Angeles. While the violin and guitar did them reasonable justice, their García Lorca inspiration was diminished without the words.

The final group of five songs and dances, were varied, though all speaking of aspects of Spain and its rich popular culture. They began with the Miller’s Dance from The Three-cornered Hat by De Falla, which was carried off with gusto; then Suspiros de España, ‘Sighs of (for?) Spain’, by the short-lived Antonio Alvarez Alonzo, plaintive with its falling phrases.

Maria de la O by Manuel López-Quiroga had a deeply traditional air, though it looks as if its origin was in a 1958 film. Again, sung versions had a passion that the more subdued violin and guitar performance could not really generate.

However, the taste of these recent Spanish songs and access to impassioned and persuasive sung versions has provided me with an hour or so of unexpected pleasure as I write this. A traditional, trumpet-led tune called Gallito by Santiago Lopez Gozalo, and España Cañi by Pascual Marquina ended the concert, apart from an encore of the tenor favourite, Granada.

The sound this very accomplished duo produced was not what we are used to hearing today in music of this kind. While it is normal to amplify a guitar except in a domestic situation, it is unusual to amplify the violin. Here both instruments were amplified to an unnecessary degree, which rather changed the character of the music and imposed a sometimes deadening uniformity of tone where the variety available in a natural acoustic would have been more interesting.

The duo’s style clearly suited music of the 19th and 20th centuries better than that of earlier periods: amplification there seemed more acceptable. So I found the second half of the recital more enjoyable than the first, which I had not really expected.

But it would have been interesting to have developed the Cervantes theme rather more, through music more closely associated with the Spain of the 16th century.  I wonder about the early 17th century, baroque flourishing of the Zarzuela and its association with the great dramatist Calderón, whose career lay between Cervantes and Sanz.


Exploratory and interesting offerings from the engaging Duo Tapas

Duo Tapas: Rupa Maitra – violin and Owen Moriarty – guitar

Pachelbel: Chaconne in D minor (arr. Anton Hoger)
Telemann: Sonata in A minor TWV 41 (arr. Edward Grigassy)
Granados: Spanish Dances, Op 37, Nos 2 and 11 (arr. Vesa Kuokannen)
Alan Thomas: From The Balkan Songbook: Haj Mene Majka, The Shepherd’s Dream, Sivi Grivi

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 9 March, 12:15 pm

Duo Tapas have been long-standing ornaments at St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts and are enterprising in the range of music they find to perform. That of course is due mainly to the lack of music written specifically for the two instruments, although the pair lend themselves readily to music for violin and piano and for the guitar, accompanying many other instruments.

Unusually, they began with a piece by Pachelbel for organ which might have seemed a stretch. The result was far from it as so much baroque music does not seem to be designed with particular instrumental sounds in mind. (which, dare I say, often makes our generation’s obsession with authentic performance, using instruments that get as close as possible to those of the period, seem a bit precious). To start with, the melodic characteristics of this chaconne reminded one of his famous Canon; but it went much further, to elaborate the themes more fancifully than happens in the Canon, so demonstrating that Pachelbel was not only more than a one-hit wonder, but a worthy contemporary of Bach’s predecessors such as Buxtehude (he was Buxtehude’s contemporary, of the generation of Corelli, Purcell, Alessandro Scarlatti, Biber, Charpentier, Marin Marais…).

The music breathed, and seemed to relish the experience of instruments that so clarified and illuminated the sounds as the violin and guitar did.  Sure, it wasn’t Bach, but an awareness of the mind and the sounds of Bach did not work to its detriment.

Telemann was born 30 years after Pachelbel, and lived most of his life in the northern parts of Germany – Saxony, Thuringia, Hamburg – and he was immensely prolific. The sonata, TWV 41 was originally for oboe and continuo and again sounded charming as arranged, though I suspect that the slow, lyrical Siciliana first movement might have been more beguiling with an oboe. This, and indeed all the movements were short, without much embellishment or repetition of the tunes.

The second movement was entitled simply Spirituoso , more lively with the two players exploiting the light and shade with fluency and warmth even though the guitar had little more than a routine accompaniment to handle. The Andante did rather create the feeling of a stroll through shady woods, the recipe for relief from the busy life as musical director of Hamburg’s five main churches (the breathtaking baroque interior of St Michaelis adorns the desktop of my computer; I ticked off all five churches in a visit a few years ago).  Though the Vivace movement was lively enough, it was also vapid and forgettable; the performance however drew even more from the music than was really there.

Two of Granados’s Spanish Dances were much more enjoyable. No 2, Orientale and No 11, Zambra were both familiar; these were the high point of the recital. In the enchanting Orientale the violin generates a particularly warm, liquid atmosphere with its beguiling melodies while the guitar unobtrusively supported her in elegant arpeggios. In the Zambra, Maitra’s dark, sensuous violin maintained a sombre quality through music that was superficially more spirited, and while Moriarty’s guitar was confined in the main to arpeggios, but he took advantage of a lively repeat of the main tune in the middle section. Granados’s music is rather neglected these days: as well as the popular No 5, Andaluza, most of this set of twelve dances deserve to be more played. And I am reminded of the fine 1998 Meridian recording by Richard Mapp of a good selection of the piano music.

The web-site of American guitarist/composer Alan Thomas shows that his ‘work-in-progress’ The Balkan Songbook has eleven pieces in it so far. The Duo played three of them. Haj Mene Majka (which Google Translate shows as Croatian, meaning ‘Hi my mother’) certainly has the character of peasant Croatian music with its fast South Slavic decorations, and the apostrophe to the composer’s mother is arresting rather than affectionate.

The Shepherd’s Dream starts with the violin alone and slowly swells beyond the dream state; this too is described in the notes as Croatian, though introduced with a few words of W B Yeats, ‘And I dreamed my lost love came stealthily out of the wood’. (It’s from ‘He tells of a valley full of lovers’ from the collection The Wind among the Reeds. I was impressed that the composer was so familiar with the huge body of Yeats’s poetry that he could light upon this).  And indeed, the words seem to align with the music which slowly diminishes and ceases.

Sivi Grivi was said to be based on a Bulgarian dance, but the ever-reliable Google Translate identified the words as Slovenian, meaning ‘Gray mane’. The guitar begins with a hesitant meandering; the violin soon joins to create a dance rhythm of increasing energy to an exciting finish.

As always, I found this musical duo interesting, musical and exploratory, with a nice mixture of the known and the unknown; just the thing for midday, leaving the rest of the day to reflect and explore further.


Baroque guitarist Hopkinson Smith reveals a little known era of Spanish music in exquisite recital

Hopkinson Smith playing a five-course baroque Spanish guitar

Music by Gaspar Sanz, Francisco Guerau, Antonio de Santa Cruz

Wesley Church, Taranaki Street, Wellington

Monday 24 February, 6:30 pm

This was Hopkinson Smith’s second performance in Wellington; the previous day he had played at Pataka, the museum and cultural centre in Porirua. I gather there was a full house, and a highly appreciative one.

His rather memorable name has been around for many decades: I confess to thinking he was English (he was born in New York, was educated at Harvard, and long resident in Switzerland) and so there were several surprises and even more delights to be found at this recital by a refined, quietly witty, unpretentious American who seems to command every kind of plucked string instrument (apart from the harp): his extraordinary discography on the Internet is worth a look.

Though he opened the recital without making any comments  about the music or the instrument he was playing,  he did speak at the end of the first bracket of three pieces by Gaspar Sanz  (1640-1710, from Aragon), thus a contemporary of such composers as Lully, Buxtehude, Stradella, Charpentier and Biber.  In terms of Spanish history, the 17th century had seen the decline of its military and political greatness, having squandered the superficial wealth that gold from the Americas had brought them.  But great empires in decline often continue to produce art of lasting quality.

These ‘Three Spanish themes’ which came from a collection published in Zaragossa in 1674, Instrucción de música sobre la guitarra española, suggested a refinement of taste, somehow in contradiction to the grandeur and pomposity still exhibited by the Spanish court and the nobility. There was little chordal writing or employment of rich harmonies; rather, a hesitant quality in the Pavanas with variations, colouring by lots of runs, subtle decoration and rhythm changes. Folias displayed a sort of flamenco character, with strumming across the finger-board.

Before playing the next group, entitled ‘Europe in Miniature’, Smith spoke about his guitar, a replica of a 17th century Spanish guitar with five courses (that is, pairs of strings tuned to the same pitch or at the octave); he noted that his instrument was tuned according to Sanz’s directions, with the two lowest courses tuned an octave higher so that no bass notes could be produced. The result is ethereal, transparent and, in the artist’s own words, the instrument was ‘liberated from the bass, thus the tonality has a unique poetic aura which in its best moments creates a magic of its own’.

It is perhaps more attuned to a venue rather smaller than the church; the space somewhat reduced the feeling of the refined character of this small instrument as well as making Smith’s words hard to hear. But a smaller venue would have meant turning many away.  While the guitar might have been minimally amplified, his voice was not.

There were six pieces in the bracket ‘Europe in miniature’. The first impression was of a certain lack of variety, particularly of key, though they may have been closely related keys; until the final piece, Tarantela which shifted dramatically with much more vigorous strumming, occasional hitting the body of the guitar, creating a very lively musical fabric. The earlier pieces were drawn from various parts of Spain and Europe in general, though always infused with a character that seemed essentially Spanish; varied in rhythm, duple to triple back and forth, lively dotted rhythms that were sometimes difficult to distinguish from quaver triplets. The delicacy and refined taste of the music steadily made itself familiar to me as the concert proceeded.

The two pieces by Francisco Guerau (1649 – 1717/1722, from Majorca) came from a famous publication of 20 years later (Poema harmonico, 1694). The Passacalles del primer tono, one of some 30 passacalles in the volume, proved a longish work, perhaps the most substantial and characteristic in the programme . There was a subtlety of invention and expression, a variety of rhythms and tempi, of unobtrusive counterpoint where, in its central part, its melodic evolution became increasingly intriguing and difficult to follow and appreciate. Towards the end, a meandering, fluid character emerged, in a more marked triple time, that was neither a minuet, a sarabande nor any kind of German Ländler.  Smith’s own notes described Guerau’s music as ‘some of the most sophisticated  writing for the guitar from the entire baroque era’.  Further exploration will be rewarding.

His Canarios (from the Canary Islands), less elaborate but more sparkling and delightful, involved a lot of strumming  that suggested the flamenco style of Andalusia.
The first half ended with a Jácaras, a lively dance by Antonio de Santa Cruz who seems to be a more obscure figure, comparable with Guerau in style, and dated around 1700.

The second half was devoted to five pieces by Sanz: a flowing Preludio based around scales and arpeggios. Then a Marizápalos which emerged as the source of the slow movement from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, a lovely set of variations.  A jig followed, and then another Passacalles, this time ‘del segundo tono’: bold strumming  and more dense clusters of chords, creating a more ‘modern’ impression than many of the other pieces.

Finally Sanz’s Canarios which proved to be the source of the last movement of Rodrigo’s Fantasia para un gentilhombre; as expected, it was delightfully lively and attractive.

The entire recital, exquisitely and brilliantly executed by Hopkinson Smith,  opened a window for me to a period of music that I was fairly unfamilar with. From a period that is contemporary with the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution in England, of Purcell and Blow, Jeremiah Clarke and Eccles; or Louis XIV’s France of Lully, Charpentier, Campra and Couperin, it evokes a society of perhaps greater refinement and sophistication, though it is pertinent to recall that this was also the era in Spain of the emergence of the baroque Zarzuela, the early form of comic opera that re-emerged strongly in the 19th century.