Jordi Savall’s Jerusalem at Lincoln Center

By Gigi Yellen

With his characteristic blend of deep research and virtuosic performance, historical accuracy and jazzlike improvisation, Jordi Savall and his band have created in “Jerusalem: City of Heavenly and Earthly Peace” a mesmerizing and troubling contemporary performance piece. Maestro Savall, esteemed creator of over 160 honored recordings of early music, combines ancient instruments, chants, recitations of sacred texts, folk tunes and even a Sufi dance in this concert (based on his 2008 2-CD set of the same name), which I was privileged to see performed on May 5 as the focus of a three-day “Jerusalem” event at New York’s Lincoln Center. I wanted to share with you some impressions and some thoughts about this most unusual Savall project.

Silhouetted against a huge dawn-like screen, a robed man blows an immensely long, grandly twisted shofar, the flawless opening notes of a fanfare that expands to include half a dozen players of these beautiful ram’s horns and as many players of the equally long, impossibly slender Arabic trumpets called annafirs. The shofar, a wake-up call most associated in our time with synagogue High Holiday services, is played by the Israeli virtuoso Yagel Harel, one of a collection of multi-ethnic players Savall has carefully gathered to demonstrate how historic enemies can melt their differences in the warm light of their musical similarities.

As he confessed in a pre-concert discussion, Maestro Savall departed from his usual approach to ensemble-building when he set about to create “Jerusalem.” To his regular forces—La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Hesperion XXI—he insisted on adding, not simply the best players, but the best players from specific backgrounds: two oud masters—one Israeli, one Iraqi; three chant masters—Sephardic Jewish, Palestinian Arab, and Armenian; players of percussion, harps, bells, and flutes representing most of the Middle East, plus “The Trumpets of Jericho”— those shofars and annafirs, joined by the drumming of tambours.

What to make of this sophisticated musical time machine, a chronological scrapbook of spiritual longings created by a virtuoso of immense good will? Themed around the city at the center of so much terrifying talk, Savall’s “Jerusalem: City of Heavenly and Earthly Peace” aims at nothing less than demonstrating that peace is possible.

As Yo-Yo Ma (who showed up in the “Jerusalem” series audience) has reminded us with his Silk Road project, as the late Isaac Stern demonstrated when he went to China, musicians are masters of peace, intuitive communicators of wordless truths that transcend boundaries. Laying aside the question of how this kind of interpersonal, one-on-one peacemaking might or might not translate onto that other stage where history performs, consider this an effort by one man to contribute what he can to healing the wounds of his time.

Ambitious in its historical scope (5,000 years in two hours), “Jerusalem” travels chronologically through the musics of the city’s ancient, and less ancient, rulers. The show divides into chapters, like acts of a play, with dramatic readings in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, Arabic and French, supplemented by giant supertitles. Heartbreaking laments are sung: in Hebrew, in Lior Elmaleh’s twining Sephardic sound; in Armenian, in the sublimely sweet tenor of Razmk Aman; in Arabic, in the haunting echo of Muwafak Shahin Khalil’s chant. And in the middle of it all, a devastating reading, in French, of the papal edict that started the catastrophe known as the Crusades.

Savall carries the weight of Spain’s1492 expulsion of its Arabic and Jewish populations heavily on his Catalonian shoulders. In pre-concert comments, he declared his belief that the roots of today’s conflicts in Jerusalem are in Spain at that moment when co-existence among Christian, Jewish and Arabic cultures blew apart. Could be. He knows more than I do when it comes to that.

What I do know is that some of his “Jerusalem” program doesn’t make sense. Maybe I’m overly sensitive to this one, but if he has set out to honor Jerusalem, why has he thrown in a Holocaust-related Jewish lament which never once mentions that city? It is the one pre-recorded segment in the entire concert: house lights dim, a single candle is lit, and a concentration camp story is told, of a cantor who begged to be allowed to sing a memorial prayer for himself before being led to his death; of how his life was spared by the Nazi guard who allowed the song, and was moved by it; of how the cantor recorded the song years later. Then we hear that recording, with organ accompaniment. It feels out of place. It feels, forgive me, more politically than aesthetically correct.

The thing is, this traditional memorial prayer, sung at funerals and other memorial services, doesn’t even mention Jerusalem. Yet so very much Jewish liturgy does! If a nod to the 20th century Jewish tragedy was the point—this was part of the concert’s “City of Refuge and Exile” chapter—why not simply recite the tradition’s classic comfort statement that goes, “May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem?” Now, there’s a connection for you.

A couple of other odd musical allusions worth mentioning: a 12th century Crusader song with an unmistakable resemblance to “Ein Feste Burg”/”A Mighty Fortress,” Martin Luther’s iconic early-16th century hymn: chosen because of this resemblance? Chosen despite it? And: the unavoidable “2001” reference in the fanfare Savall created for the shofars—prehistory, indeed! Jarring, and almost, alas, funny. Those first three notes of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra can thrill, but they were tough to reconcile with this show.

Jordi Savall is one of my musical heroes. On this blog, earlier this spring, R. M. Campbell described Savall’s Town Hall Seattle concert, “Lux Feminae,” as “a kind of rare adventure.” So is “Jerusalem.” I left the concert haunted by the finale, a single ancient melody which Savall arranged to be sung simultaneously in five different traditional versions, with the entire ensemble, some two dozen virtuosi, playing along in harmony. His vision, at least, merits great praise.

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