Savall in excelsis

By Lawrence A. Johnson

 South Florida may not rank high on many people’s list of hotspots for early and Baroque music. Yet for a quarter-century the Miami Bach Society has been bringing a choice if somewhat idiosyncratic selection of international musicians to local audiences to perform pre-19th-century repertoire.

This year the Bach Society is celebrating a double anniversary, marking both its 25th season and the tenth installment of the Tropical Baroque Music Festival. The annual event, which runs through Saturday, enjoyed an extraordinarily successful evening Monday night with the return of celebrated festival perennial Jordi Savall.

In an era and milieu where one has become numb to expansive, often interminable and annoyingly self-aggrandizing pre-performance introductions, Savall provides a welcome bit of Castilian quiet dignity. The Spanish viola da gamba master and colleagues come out on stage, perform with remarkable polish and dynamism and then exit, letting the music speak for itself.

Savall’s programs usually offer evenings of chamber intimacy, but Monday Savall brought his string chamber orchestra Le Concert des Nations, attracting a very large turnout at Gusman Concert Hall.

On paper, the program, titled Les Gouts Reunis (The Tastes United) looked like a rather dry mix of Italian, German, Spanish and English Baroque works, but the performances were anything but dull. Savall’s bracing style mixes period instruments and serious musicology with pragmatic transcription for a blend of straight-faced scholarship and subversive quirkiness that make his concerts delightful.

 The collision of timbres and colors was winningly displayed in the opening Lully suite from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.  The rasp of the period instruments and tonal variety was consistently ear- tickling from the sweet dark-hued burnish of Savall’s viola da gamba to the vibrant bite of Manfredo Kraemer’s violin, the woody thud of the military drum, and Enrique Solinis’ dexterity in switching between guitar and theorbo. Savall mostly led by example but occasionally would conduct with his bow, smiling benevolently at his colleagues’ music-making.

 Those who think of Biber as a purveyor of religious church sonatas would be greatly surprised by his Battalia a 10. The programmatic, military-inspired score is wildly theatrical and was presented as such, with rifle-shot pizzicatos, and Kraemer suddenly leaving the stage only to return playing his instrument while doing a high-step march around the stage.  There’s also a remarkable movement depicting drunken soldiers with the instruments playing a far-flung mélange of different melodies in contrasting, jarringly dissonant keys. The musicians brought extraordinary energy and intensity to this score, yet the wounded lament of the soldiers in the final section was rendered with striking delicacy and hushed tones.

 Corelli’s Concerto IV in D major is a de facto concerto for two violins and Kraemer and Riccardo Minasi made a dervish pair of soloists bringing fizzing vitality to the score.  Representatives of the English Baroque are not plentiful but Charles Avison’s Concerto IX in Seven Parts (after Scarlatti) proved an attractive if not particularly compelling work, given fine advocacy. More interesting were a selection of items from the little known Spaniard Antonio Rodriguez de Hita (1725-1787). These works,  originally for winds, lost little in being played by strings with the emphasis on sweet melancholy and Kraemer again providing stellar solo work.

 Boccherini’s guitar quintet, La musica notturna di Madrid was the most familiar work heard Monday and this picturesque depiction of nocturnal Madrid came to rich and vibrant life in this retooling for chamber orchestra with its retreating military garrison, raptly beautiful depiction of worshipers’ rosary chants, and whirlwind Spanish dances.

Savall is an early music rock star and the enthusiastic ovations treated him as such, bringing him back for three encores before he led Kraemer and colleagues off the stage.

Posted in Performances

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Tue Mar 3, 2009
at 2:03 pm
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