An audience some 700-strong at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium cheered Savall, the 74-year-old eminence grise of Early Music, when he took the stage Saturday night with a large ensemble of instrumentalists, singers, and two actors. In “Shakespeare & Cervantes: Dreams and Follies” Savall led Juilliard415, the Juilliard School’s main Early Music group. The ensemble combines a large variety of ancient instruments – violas da gamba, lutes, sackbuts (the precursor to the trombone), shawms and dulcians (precursors to the oboe and bassoon), percussion, and more – with “modern” strings (violin, viola, cello) and singers. The ensemble also included a few guest musicians, notably Bruce Dickey playing the curved cornetto, a wooden horn with a cool, smooth sound that lies somewhere between brass and woodwind.
Actors contributed readings from Shakespeare and his contemporaries in the first half, Cervantes in the second. The program illuminated the music with the texts and the texts with the music. While the poetical readings in the first half were too stagey-sounding for my tastes, Alejandro Rodriguez’s warmly conversational readings from Cervantes in Spanish were a pure, twinkly delight even for my Spanish-clueless ears, as my eyes could follow along with the English translations in the printed program.
Playing the treble viola da gamba and conducting from his seat, Savall led the ensemble with his usual understated suavity. Throughout his career the Catalan performer and impresario has uniquely combined two parallel capabilities: a seemingly effortless musicianship built upon a supremely beautiful tone and flawless technique; and an unflagging drive to popularize pre-classical European music. It has made his name the one in the field that classical and concert music fans all recognize. (Like many, I first became aware of him with the 1991 Alain Corneau film Tous les matins du monde, a fictionalized story about the French composers Sainte-Colombe and Marin Marais, for which he adapted and performed the soundtrack that has sold over a million copies worldwide.)
This was the second Shakespeare-themed Early Music concert I’ve been to in a week. Maybe the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death has something to do with it. Just last weekend, just across Central Park, the Folger Consort, Stile Antico, and the Arcadia Viols joined forces for “The Wonder of Will: Early and New Music Celebrating Shakespeare” (reviewed here), which centered on the music of John Dowland and William Byrd, the most prominent English composers of the Bard’s time.
Savall’s Shakespeare-and-Cervantes program also included music by Dowland. “Now, O now I needs must part” was a highlight of the first half, a simple little tune begun by a solo tenor voice, with baritone Dimitri Katotakis and two mezzos layering on and the cornetto adding airy filigrees. Savall later took the lead on Dowland’s beautiful “Lachrimae Antiquae” for strings and lutes, a piece performed at the Folger/Stile Antico concert as well.
Voices and strings combined colorfully on Byrd’s setting of “La Virginella” from Orlando Furioro. Katotakis revealed an impressive range singing the near-tenor solo part on Richard Nicholson’s “Joan, quote John.” And the appearance of a jew’s harp in another piece filled in another tiny corner of my Early Music education (one I hadn’t known existed).
The biggest audience-pleasers came in the Cervantes half of the program. The lutenists switched to guitars as all six singers appeared for the folía antigua “Rodrigo Martines,” a piece loaded which macho energy. Featuring all three male vocalists and Savall improvising on the viol, it accompanied the first of a sequence of passages from Don Quixote de la Mancha.
Other high points included the gracious and emotional “Ancient Ballad of Lancelot”; a drone-driven selection from the “Ballad of Abindarraez”; an exquisite rendition of a segment of the “Ballad of the Twelve Peers of France and Roncesvaux”; “An evening chaconne” by 17th-century composer Juan Arañés, its rhythm unconventional in the context of modern Western music; and a light and playful “echo roundelay” called “Jealous of your gaze.”
The showstopper, though, so lustily received that Savall called it to be repeated as an encore, was the romantic and raunchy “Romance del Conde Claros de Montalbán (Ballad of Count Claros of Montalban),” the story of an illicit romance between a Count and an Infanta (princess). When the lovers are betrayed by a passing hunter (announced with hunting horns) the Count is thrown into prison and sentenced to death. Unlike most English ballads of similar ilk, it has a happy ending – for the couple, and for the audience of Early Music lovers Saturday night.
I don’t think anyone but Jordi Savall can pull in such a sizable U.S. audience for music of Shakespeare’s and Cervantes’ time. But judging from the skill and enthusiasm displayed by the musicians of Juilliard415, new generations of artists won’t be dropping the ball.