Arts Listings

Savall’s Skill Lends Immediacy to Performance

By Ira Steingroot, Special to the Planet
Tuesday May 01, 2007

Before going to hear the work of a particular classical composer, which, for me, usually means Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Mahler, or Satie, I try to listen to recordings of the pieces on the program before hand. Listening ahead not only makes the melodies performed familiar, it also gives the live concert a nostalgic resonance, and suggests a context for the music, both the original moment of its creation in time by the composer, and its creative intervening afterlife.  

This eventually leads to the current moment of performance and my experience as audience.  

On the other hand, I have probably attended 100 times as many live jazz performances as classical and I have never felt the need to study up for a jazz musician. Certainly my familiarity with the context of jazz—its more contemporary nature, its use of popular standards—is part of the reason for that. More important though, jazz has an immediacy that, in a lot of classical music, has become secondary to historical authenticity of performance and accuracy of reproduction of notes. Not only is jazz improvised, making listening ahead irrelevant, but the players understand that improvisation confers upon them the further freedom of playing in the moment, playing from the way they feel while performing.  

Although I am sure that all musicians aim for that existential quality in one way or another, the only living classical player to impress me with that sense of immediacy is the Spanish viola de gambist, Jordi Savall, who returns to Berkeley for two concerts of early music this weekend. No matter how unprepared I am, Savall is always prepared—not just to unlock the doors to what should be an esoteric musical experience, but to blow the doors off their very hinges.  

His Friday evening concert will feature the compositions of Marin Marais (1656-1728) and Antoine Forqueray (1671-1745), dubbed the angel and the devil by Savall, the greatest viola de gambists of their time. The viola de gamba, if you do not know, is the instrument that preceded the cello. In fact, Savall’s viola, a 1697 instrument made in London by Barak Norman, had been converted into a cello. Savall had it restored as a seven-string viola de gamba with traditional moveable gut frets. If you know Gainsborough’s various portraits of Karl Friederich Abel, you may have noticed that the 18th century transitional composer/performer is sometimes painted with his viola de gamba and at other times with the newer cello. Also on the Friday evening program are pieces by François Couperin (1668-1733), Sainte Colombe le fils and Robert Visée.  

The Saturday concert will feature works by the Spanish composers Diego Ortiz, Gaspar Sanz and Antonio Martin y Coll, a harpsichord sonata by the Neapolitan composer Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), who spent most of his professional life in Spain, and improvisations on the Canario, a dance form from the Canary Islands. Also on the bill will be works by Bach, the revelatory Captain Tobias Hume (c. 1569-1645), Marin Marais, and Sainte-Colombe pere and fils. If you have seen the haunting film, Tous les Matins du Monde, based on the lives of Sainte-Colombe and Marais, with music performed and conducted by Savall, you will already be familiar with some of these vital early music composers.  

But, as I have indicated, it does not matter whether you already know any of this pre-classical music. Savall’s passion, virtuosity and freedom in performing these works makes everything he plays absolutely contemporary.