We all know the names Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms. We think of these as the great signposts on the familiar highway that is the history of Western music. Looking backwards, the story seems clean, neat, inevitable.
But what then do we do with such messy characters as Tobias Hume, Franz Biber, Johann Zelenka, or even Erik Satie? Are they merely footnotes to Bach or Debussy, able “to swell a progress, start a scene or two,” or are they creative spirits who deserve to be treasured for their own unique works?
The Catalan viola da gamba player Jordi Savall has made it his life’s work to retrieve such sparks of musical genius, not just on his own instrument, but also as a conductor, producer of concerts and records, cinematic music director, teacher and historian. In his hands, categories like ancient and modern, popular and classical, interpretation and improvisation, disappear and we are left with Duke Ellington’s dictum that, “There are only two kinds of music, good music and bad music.”
This month he returns to the Bay Area to conduct the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in Musica de la Noche, a program of works by Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) and Juan Arriaga (1806-1826). Boccherini was an Italian cellist and composer, a follower of Haydn, who was a pioneer in the proto-classical symphony and the string quintet. He spent most of his adult life in Spain working for various royal and noble patrons.
For this concert, the orchestra will perform, appropriately, one of his symphonies and one of his quintets. It is from the quintet that the program takes its name: La musica notturna di Madrid, a piece of descriptive music charting the city’s night sounds, “beginning with the bell of the Ave Maria and ending with a military retreat,” as Boccherini put it.
His Sinfonia No. 23 in D minor “Grande” a più strumenti obbligati, Op. 37 showcases his affinity for minor keys. If you heard the Twentieth Century Chamber Orchestra’s New Year’s Eve performance of another of Boccherini’s orchestral works, Sinfonia in D minor, you may remember that it is known as “from the house of the devil” because it is full of diminished fifths, that is, slightly discordant tritones, the so-called devil’s interval. These minor keys allowed him to express himself beyond the light Italian lyricism that was natural to him.
Juan Arriaga was born the year after Boccherini died and only lived to the age of 20 yet he made a lasting impression on Iberian music. He was known as “the Spanish Mozart,” although more recently, some have adjusted that to “the Basque Mozart.”
For this concert, the orchestra will perform the Overture from Los esclavos felices (The Happy Slaves), the only surviving part of an opera he wrote at thirteen. The program will conclude with another symphony in D, Arriaga’s Sinfonia a grande orquesta in D major.
If you think these composers and works are only of historical interest, you miss what Jordi Savall brings to this kind of music. Where we have been trained to look for masterpieces of composition, perfect musical constructions, Savall is looking for pieces that free the performers in the act of interpreting the music. Western composers then begin to take on some of the qualities of jazz composers who write structures that allow the musicians to complete the composition.
Of course, there is a notated score, but there is something beyond simple mechanical reproduction. When performers of the calibre of Savall and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra respond to composers like Boccherini and Arriaga in this way, be prepared for some of the most beautiful and instantly accessible classical music you have ever heard.
The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra conducted by Jordi Savall will perform on Friday, 8 p.m., at Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco; Saturday, 8 p.m., and Sunday, 7:30 p.m., at the First Congregational Church, 2345 Channing Way, Berkeley; Tuesday, 8 p.m., at the Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church, 49 Knox Drive, Lafayette; and Oct. 21, 8 p.m., at the First United Methodist Church, 625 Hamilton Avenue, Palo Alto. For more information, call (415) 252-1288 or see www.philharmonia.org.