Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
February 25, 2018

Catalan viola da gambist, scholar, teacher, conductor and UNESCO Artist for Peace Jordi Savall is one of the biggest names in early music, with several hundred recordings to his name, swathes of honorary doctorates and awards, and a reputation for bringing vibrant new life to unusual or neglected corners of music history. But despite the prestige of the headliner of this concert in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House, the star himself was a low-key director, sitting off to the side of the combined forces of his ensemble Hespèrion XXI and Mexican group Tembembe Ensamble Continuo. As Limelight’s Editor at Large Clive Paget put it when he saw Savall’s The Routes of Slavery in New York last year, he was “a benign and constant presence”.

Jordi SavallJordi Savall. Photo © Ken Leanfore

Savall was most recently in Australia in 2014 with his Jerusalem Project, which conjured up the diverse musical traditions swirling around the city (and took out a Helpmann Award). A more intimate project, this tour’s Folías Antiguas & Criollas (From the Ancient to the New World) – in Sydney following performances at the Perth Festival and Melbourne Recital Centre – focused on the musical cross-pollination that occurred between Renaissance Europe and Latin America – very much a two-way street – with the popular ground bass La Folía woven through to pull the program together.

Iterations of La Folía, ranged from an anonymous Folías antiguas and the 1490 Rodrigo Martinez Folía to Antonio Martín y Coll’s Diferencias sobre las Folías from the 18th-century Franciscan friar’s Flores de Música. Spun through with Savall’s beautifully burnished sound on treble or bass viol, the simple Folía became a fascinatingly varied refrain interspersed between music from Spain and the New World.

Tembembe Ensamble Continuo – a group dedicated to exploring the connections between the Hispanic baroque period and traditional music from Mexico and Latin America –  brought singers, a dancer and a variety of instruments to the party, from the marimbol (a tuned percussion instrument not unlike the African mbira, or thumb piano) to percussion and a suite of guitar-like instruments (the guitarra de son, Huapanguera, Jarana huasteca, jarana jarocha and leona) that combined with harp to fill out the harmonic texture or carry the melody on their own. Singers Ada Coronel and Zenen Zeferino brought a lilting, conversational tone to the traditional El Cielito Lindo (My Lovely Sweet One) while dancer Donají Esparza’s elegant footwork accompanied several numbers throughout the evening.

Jordi SavallSingers Ada Coronel and Zenen Zeferino. Photo © Ken Leanfore

If the first half of the concert was something of a slow burn (this was a concert of subtlety and understatement over musical ostentation) there was plenty of warmth to draw the audience in. Savall and the combined band delivered the relaxed, yet rock-solid, ensemble playing of a jazz group playing the same bar every night and the whole ensemble joined in the singing when required.

It was in the second half, however, that things began to heat up. Zenen Zeferino’s rendition of the traditional son jarocho Los Chiles Verdes (The Green Chillies), accompanied only by guitar before the texture built, was particularly moving, Zeferino’s voice resounding in the concert hall and adorned with a light vibrato. Harpist Andrew Lawrence-King quoted saucily from Casanova’s memoirs of his travels in Spain to introduce Santiago de Murcia’s El Fandanguito, bringing plenty of that sauciness to his Spanish Baroque Harp, leading the dance (though Esparza’s dancing was far more restrained than the harpist’s lusty recitation).

Savall and the band capped off the concerto with a bright Canarios and 16th-century Italian composer Antonio Valente’s Gallarda Napolitana – another piece of music with variations found in both the New World and the Old. The encore was the evocative and playful Dance of the Iguana – performed with delightfully literal choreography.

Jordi Savall himself was ever present, and his bustling solos on treble viol and rich sound on bass were a highlight, but this concert was about ensemble – at its heart was a sense of relaxed, communal music-making, bringing an amiable warmth to this rich exploration of musical heritage.