Jordi Savall’s Jerusalem seeks to mend cultural fabric

Jordi Savall

By Gigi Yellen

The pre-eminent early-music artist of our time has to be the tireless Jordi Savall, whose combination of scholarship, musicianship, and visionary good will has produced over 150 important recordings. Many of these center on a theme. When this year’s US tour brought Savall and his band, Hesperion XXI, to Seattle (Town Hall, via Early Music Guild) in March, they offered a women-themed program based on their album “Lux Feminae.” Gathering Note’s R.M. Campbell called that concert “a kind of rare adventure.”

New York’s Lincoln Center is hosting Savall and company in another kind of rare adventure, a three-evening series, “Jordi Savall: Jerusalem” part of its Great Performers season. Two of the evenings are concerts based on Savall’s recordings: Sunday May 2, the 2006 album “Orient-Occident,” and Monday, the 2008 2-CD set “Jerusalem: City of Double Peace: Heavenly Peace and Earthly Peace.” It’s my good fortune to be in NY for these, and I want to share with you some of the experience of this series.

The series aims to be more than simply a couple of great concerts. The first night, Saturday evening, found Mr. Savall in the audience, for a keynote address by the speaker of his choice, the prolific religion author Karen Armstrong.

Armstrong, who has based many books on her own life as a religious seeker, has literally written the book—well, a book—on the history of Jerusalem. Without taking on her troubling slant on that history, I offer one memorable message from her “What is a Holy City?” talk: classical myth is a motivation for current action. Received stories about a city lead to certain behaviors about it.

Classical music functions as a kind of myth: stories in sound, repeated for the benefit of generation after generation. So if music lifts us up, what actions are we called upon to take in our own time, in the face of all that threatens to bring us down? This is a question that hovers over this series.

Saturday evening’s musical element was the documentary film about one attempt to answer that question: a world-famous and controversial Israeli conductor, joins forces with his world-famous and controversial Palestinian intellectual friend, and creates an orchestra with young players from warring countries. “Knowledge is the Beginning” (dir. Paul Smaczny, 2005) tells the story of Daniel Barenboim and the late Edward Said’s West-Eastern Divan, founded in Weimar in 1999. Made up of young performers from Israel and across the Arab world (including sometime Seattle Chamber Music Society performer Shai Wosner, a featured interviewee in the film), this project is now based in Seville, Spain, funded by the regional government of Asturias in the spirit of the time, centuries ago, when Jews, Arabs and Christians coexisted in that territory.

That’s the connection between Barenboim’s orchestra of Western classical instruments (they play a lot of Beethoven) and Savall, maestro of the medieval and Mediterranean. From his perspective in Spain, Savall has envisioned nothing less than a repair of the torn cultural fabric that Jews, Arabs and Christians once shared.

To Sunday night’s standing-room-only audience at a pre-concert discussion, Savall declared, “All the bridges were broken” in 1492, when Spain’s Jews and Arabs were expelled. He sees in that year the seeds of today’s conflicts. Savall may not know how to make political peace, but he does know how to make music speak the language of peace.

Tuesday, I’ll post about the cross-cultural and cross-chronological music he plays and conducts at the Sunday and Monday concerts. Hint: they’re in a jazz venue.


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