Wednesday, December 21, 2016

In Jerusalem Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI present an evening commemorating 700 years of the death of Ramon Llull

Ramon Lllull (

On December 14th 2016, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and the Ramon Llull Institute hosted Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI in “Ramon Llull, Times of Conquest, Dialogue and Distress”. The festive musical event took place in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA.

Celebrated Catalan musician Jordi Savall (b.1941, Igualada, Spain) is seen as a major driving force behind the revival of early music from Europe, the New World and the Mediterranean. He constitutes a point of reference in the study, performance, conducting and the restoring of many musical traditions and in a wide-ranging intercultural dialogue that transcends all borders. Jordi Savall established Hespèrion XX in Basel in 1974, changing its name to Hespèrion XXI in 2000. “Hespèrion”, from the classical Greek, refers to the people of the Italian- and Iberian Peninsulas. The international ensemble is known for its focus on scholarship of Spanish music of the 16th and 17th centuries, for its historically informed use of improvisation around basic melodic- and rhythmic structures and its emotional intimacy and immediacy. One of the key members of Hespèrion was Savall’s late wife, the eminent singer Montserrat Figueras.

As part of the commemorative celebrations worldwide surrounding the 700th anniversary of Ramon Llull’s death, Jordi Savall created a new musical project focused on this literary and historical figure. Ramon Llull (1232-1316) is the most universally-recognized Catalan thinker and one of the most important writers of the Middle Ages. The concert mapped the major events of Llull’s life with readings from Llull’s most important writings, interspersed with musical pieces, in themselves, a musical voyage capturing the beauty and emotion defining the music of Ramon Llull’s time.

Founder and musical director of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra Maestro David Shemer opened the evening with words of welcome to all and thanks to the Spanish ambassador to Israel Mr. Fernando Carderera, who was present at the event. David Shemer spoke of the fact that Ramon Llull possibly journeyed to Jerusalem, having considered it an important cultural place, this being the reason for holding the Hespèrion XXI concert in Jerusalem.

The program opens with the outstanding flautist and bagpiper Pierre Hamon entering the hall from the back; he is playing a double flute, to be joined by David Mayoral on drum, introducing an excerpt from Llull’s writings:

‘Music is the means whereby we are taught to sing and play instruments correctly, fast and slow, high and low, harmonizing the notes and voices so that there can be a concord of voices and sounds…’  Doctrina pueril, LXXIIII

The narrative, read in Spanish by Silvia Bel and Jordi Boixaderas, begins with 1229, when James I conquered Majorca, proceeding to Ramon Llull’s birth in Majorca, his marriage, his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and other holy places, learning Arabic from his Moorish slave and Llull’s first works: “The Logic of Al-Ghazali” and “The Book of Contemplation”. In 1283, Llull writes “The Book of the Lover and the Beloved”, in 1290 going to teach in monasteries in Italy and taking his first journey to North Africa in 1293, spending time in Tunis. Llull arrives in Rome in 1295, addressing a petition to Pope Boniface VIII, writing “Disconsolation” and “The Tree of Science”. On his second visit to France in 1297, Llull dedicates his “Tree of the Philosophy of Love” to King Philip IV of France and Queen Joan I of Navarre. In 1299, in Barcelona, James II of Aragon grants him permission to preach in all the synagogues and mosques of his domain. In 1302, Llull travels to Cyprus, Armenia Minor and possibly to Jerusalem. In 1307, again in North Africa, he is imprisoned in Béjaïa (Algeria) for six months. Following his expulsion from there, a ship he is on capsizes near Pisa. He survives. Following his last journey to Paris in 1309, he attends the Ecumenical Council of Vienne in 1312. In 1313, at age 81, he makes his will, embarking on his third mission to North Africa in 1314, dedicating works to the Sultan and requesting James of Aragon to find him a Franciscan to translate his works into Latin. Ramon Llull dies in 1316 at age 84.

Jordi Savall’s Hespèrion XXI, with its international line-up of artists from east and west - from Spain, Turkey, Italy, France, Israel and other countries - is the ideal ensemble to accompany Ramon Llull’s story, to reflect on the literary and historical figure’s cosmopolitanism and his acquaintance with all three monotheistic religions and cultures. It was Jordi Savall who initiated the concept of the program, accompanying its development and selecting the music to be performed; historical- and literary research was carried out by Manuel Forcano and Sergi Grau.

Under the watchful eye of Jordi Savall, playing viola d’arc or the rebab, the pieces punctuating the narrative were mostly monodic, from as far back as the 11th century - instrumental or vocal-instrumental pieces, European or oriental, sacred or secular. Performed by consummate musician soprano VivaBiancaLuna Biffi (also the consort vielle player), the very sonorous baritone Furio Zanasi and instruments, we heard, for example, “Veri dulcis in tempore” (anonymous, Codex of 1010):

‘In the springtime sweet,
Juliana and her sister stand
Beneath a flowering tree.
Sweet love! Wretched is she
Who in this season lacks your company …’

Or the outspoken song of love and despair “Si ai perdut mon saber” (So addled are my senses) by Ponç d’Ortafa (1170-1246), sung by Zanasi in a richly evocative manner. Representative of early Spanish sacred songs was “Santa Maria, strela do dia” (Holy Mary, Star of the Day), one of the 420 Cantigas de Santa Maria, written during the reign of Alfonso X the Wise (1221-1284) and often attributed to him.  Presenting Arabic vocal music, guest artist to the ensemble Lubna Bassal’s performance, together with traditional hand movements, was authentic, emotional and powerful. Another guest artist at the Hespèrion XXI concert was Israeli singer Lior Elmaleh, one of today’s most experienced interpreters of Jewish Andalusian song. Following a meditative opening played on oud by renowned Israeli Yair Dalal, Elmaleh gave a moving performance of Spanish Jewish poet Judah Halevi’s “Beautiful Land, Delight of the World”, its sense of yearning reinforced by delicate playing of percussion, ney and viol.

The several instrumental pieces included early dance music, such as the jolly 14th century Istanpitta: “Belicha” (Hamon-flute, Mayoral-percussion), a colourful performance of the Ottoman “Güresh” dance and a mysterious-sounding interpretation of the anonymous Berber “Dance of the Wind” (ney and drum). One of the program highlights was guest musician ney artist (the ney is an end-blown flute that features prominently in Middle Eastern music) Usama Abu Ali’s performance of a Sufi dance, together with percussion. With his superb control of circular breathing, Abu Ali’s playing was virtuosic, intense and thrilling. Contributing to the elegance and allure of the ensemble were Angelique Mauillon-medieval harp, Turkish artist Hakan Güngör’s exemplary playing of the qanun, Mayoral’s creative use of percussion and Savall’s touching, nostalgic bowed melodies.

In the spiritual chant – “Torah, Ghazali-Durme-Apo xeno meros” – sung by each of the singers to an almost identical melody, Jordi Savall makes a statement: that all sang the same music in Mediterranean countries but that each community has since claimed it as its own. With all the singers joining in the music of different ethnic groups, Savall’s message of all people belonging to the same human race came through clearly in performance that was informed, sensitive and polished.




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