Standing ovation greets 3000 years of musical history and a moving plea for peace.

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

April 20, 2014

Jordi Savall’s sublime Jerusalem Project has been around since 2008, forming the basis for his best-selling CD/book of the same name, but this is the first time it’s been heard in Australia and it was well worth the wait. An aural extravaganza, incorporating two-dozen musicians from a diverse range of musical backgrounds, it’s a unique showcase and filled the Sydney Opera House with a genuine sense of occasion.

Of course, Savall is not only one of the greatest practitioners and scholars in his field, he’s also a UNESCO Artist for Peace who really cares about getting his message across. That came over loud and clear in a concert that was a moving exploration of this most mystical and controversial of cities, and a musical evocation of what three religions have taken from it and done to it (and, let’s not forget, have done to each other as well).

They began with an extraordinary musical hypothesis – the trumpets of Jericho predicated the sounds that might have destroyed that least fortunate of Middle Eastern cities. Three shofars, a pair of anafirs (slightly more conventional Oriental trumpets) and some hefty drums produced an utterly barbaric, strangely terrifying din that threated to bring the house down before we’d even begun.

From there we moved into the realm of Heavenly Peace with an ethereal evocation of the Sibylline oracles and a recitation from the Koran. Vocalists Lubna Salame and Mahmud Husein represented Israel and Palestine with a compelling dignity and authenticity throughout.

Different parts of the evening were devoted to the Jewish city, the Christian city and the Arab-cum-Ottoman city, and gave opportunities for some virtuoso displays from Savall’s assembled forces. These included nine players from his own Hespèrion XXI (including the legendary Andrew Lawrence-King on medieval harp) and four singers from La Capella Reial de Catalunya as well as musicians from the Holy Land, Armenia, Greece and Turkey playing exotic instruments like the qanun, ney, duduk, oud, kamancha, santur and morisca (look them up – they’re worth the research). Moments of high drama, such as Pope Urban’s call to Holy War and Suleyman the Magnificent's Dream, were recited by the multi-linguistic Manuel Forcano.

Throughout proceedings, poignant laments were brilliantly juxtaposed with a series of dances, pilgrim songs and Ottoman marches that set toes tapping as the musicians plucked, bowed, piped and struck pretty much everything in sight. Highlights would have to include the Crusader’s oddly melancholic Pax! In Nomine Domine and a rousing first half finale – a Cantiga about the Virgin saving an unfortunate woman who toppled overboard on her way to the Holy Land.

What made it such a special occasion, though, was the section dealing with refuge, exile and the desire for peace. A candle was lit and a sequence of laments and poems were surmounted by two highly personal recordings: the first was from 1950 – a chazzan, Shlomo Katz, singing for the victims of Auschwitz; the second, the sound of the late Monteserrat Figueras, Savall’s wife and a moving force behind the Jersusalem Project.

As this diverse band joined hands at the end in a spirit of unanimity and the power of music over religious enmity, the audience rose spontaneously as well. Now, if only the politicians could do the same…

The Jerusalem Project plays Melbourne Recital Centre on April 22 & 23.