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Jordi Savall: Musical Ambassador

Have viola da gamba, will travel



Jordi Savall, though he specializes in old music, is never content with the tried and true. He came to public attention some three decades ago as a performer of viol music who could actually make the scores sound human again, not like dry museum relics. Whether as a solo player or as a guiding force (usually with his wife, vocalist Montserrat Figueras) of such ensembles as Hesperion XX (now XXI), La Capella Reial, and Le Concert des Nations, he performs with energy and expressive warmth.

Born in Barcelona, Spain, the 68-year-old Savall began his musical training there in a boys’ choir and then studied cello at the Barcelona Conservatory, from which he graduated in 1964. The following year he began teaching himself the viola da gamba and studying early music, eventually pursuing these interests formally at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Switzerland, where he continues to teach courses and give master classes.

Savall’s repertoire runs the gamut from solo viol music of the 18th-century French composer Marin Marais to big works like Monteverdi’s Vespers. And that’s just his Western European repertory. Increasingly through the years, Savall has drawn on the music and musicians of other cultures, finding many surprising and engaging parallels and points of departure. One of his most lavish and spectacular recent projects along these lines is the majestic Jerusalem: City of Two Peaces—Heavenly Peace and Earthly Peace, a set of two SACDs and a companion book documenting the music of that most multicultural of Mediterranean cities over the course of millennia. The discs are slipped into the endpapers of a thick, lavishly illustrated and annotated book of commentary in multiple languages, including Savall’s own, Catalan.

Savall will perform Jerusalem in concert during a stateside tour in early 2010.

His latest project, La Tragedie Cathare, is scheduled for release this month. It focuses on the Cathare victims of the Crusades. The epic two-CD and book set contains the recording premiere of the “Song of the Albigensian Crusade” taken from the only surviving manuscript dating from the 1200s.

Savall manages such often extravagant packages because he operates his own CD label, Alia Vox (distributed in the United States by Harmonia Mundi). The company issues about one release each month, alternating new productions with reissues of the 150 or so CDs Savall has recorded over the years for other labels.

The new box set is the fifth recording Savall has released in the past year.

The other CDs range from a collection of music by Henry Purcell to an anthology of songs of the Spanish royal minstrels to a set of Irish and Scottish airs and dances.

Meanwhile, Savall and his various ensembles give about 140 concerts a year. Savall is so highly regarded that he and Hesperion XXI were featured last February during the reopening of the revamped Alice Tully Hall in New York City. The sort of high-profile occasion that a few decades ago would have called for a classical violinist like Jascha Heifetz to play 19th-century standards instead allowed Savall to present Sephardic music—primarily that of the Jews of Spain and North Africa—played on such exotic and non-Western instruments as the lira, rebab, dulcimer, oud, santur, and moresca.

During his visit to the United States, Savall spoke about his love of the viol, Baroque music, and communication across cultures.

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