Jordi Savall: Suite Inspiration and Gamba Man

Georgia Rowe on March 6, 2010

Jordi Savall, always a welcome guest in the Bay Area, returns this month for an extended stay. The celebrated Spanish artist appears with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra March 5-13; the program, titled “The French Suite in Europe,” features Savall as soloist in Telemann’s Suite for Viola da Gamba and Strings in D Major, and as leader in works by Dumanoir, Lully, and Handel On March 16, Savall leads one of his own ensembles, Hesperion XXI, featuring his wife, the great soprano Montserrat Figueras, in a program of works titled “Lux Feminae”; the Cal Performances concert, presented in connection with the release of Figueras’ new recording, highlights aspects of womanhood from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. SFCV spoke with Savall earlier this week in Berkeley.

You’ve had a long relationship with Philharmonia Baroque. How would you characterize this orchestra?

You can feel that we’ve been playing a long time together. They have a very nice way to play, to listen to each other, and I think that’s a very good basic quality. There’s a consistency in the sound that, when you start to practice, you can reach very quickly.

This program includes works by Dumanoir, Lully, Telemann, and Handel. What can you tell us about it?

The program is composed with a certain way to show the extension of the French style. From the beginning, there’s the orchestra before Lully, which is the “Dumanoir Suite” from the Ballet de Stockholm. This is very interesting because it’s typical music in the French style. It’s not 100 percent sure that it’s from this composer. Dumanoir was the first violin in the period between Louis XIII and Louis XIV. He was the first to explore the orchestral sound before Lully arrives in Versailles. This is music with a lot of connection to the Renaissance, with very popular dances, very typical early forms. Then it’s Lully time, with the Alceste Suite, which already shows the magnificence and pomp of Versailles. Then we have the exportation of the French style, with Telemann and Handel. Telemann, with his solo suite for viola da gamba and strings, realized one of the most beautiful productions in French style. I don’t know any other French music for viola da gamba and strings that has these qualities. We have a lot of chamber music, but this piece shows how well Telemann knows the French style — and also how well he knows the special qualities of the viola da gamba [bass viol]. Then it’s the Handel, who, among all the composers of the period, makes the synthesis from the Italian, French, German, and English. In his Water Music, there’s a lot of French influence, but it’s a nice combination.

Philharmonia Baroque has helped Bay Area audiences discover a great deal of early music. Is there still music of the era that is emerging for you?

Yes, and I think there’s a lot of music that we do know that is rarely played. In this context, for example, a composer like Telemann is not well-known today. He’s less well-known than Bach, Handel, or Vivaldi. At the time, Telemann was extremely popular, and he’s a great composer. I think he’s been destroyed by bad performances. He was very much played in the beginning of the early-music movement, and played in a very boring way. When you listen for the first time to an interpretation of something you don’t know, and it’s not interesting, you think, “It’s not an interesting piece.” You can’t imagine how nice it can be if it’s played well. If you listen to an opera by Mozart, and it’s boring, you don’t accuse Mozart of composing a boring opera. You say it’s a bad interpretation. So people make these conclusions, and this is what happened with Telemann and many other composers.

Is that part of why you became a conductor?

No, I think I’m a conductor because I wanted to conduct my own groups. It was a natural evolution from playing to conducting; when you’re doing a big project, you need to conduct and not play. But I still prefer playing. It gives you more possibilities to influence the music. When you are not playing, you cannot create the sound yourself; you have to communicate it. But in the last moment, it’s the orchestra creating the sound. As a performer, with my instrument, I think I can most exactly realize my ideas. With the orchestra, I try to transmit my ideas, but each orchestra, as you said, has its own character. This is also nice, but sometimes you think if you could play all the instruments, you could do it differently. Still, it’s nice when you’re conducting Monterverdi’s Vespers, or the B-Minor Mass of Bach, to have control of everything.

Was viola da gamba your first instrument, and how did it come to be your principal instrument?

My first instrument was my voice, when I was a child. When my voice changed, I was studying harmony and discovered in a rehearsal of Mozart’s Requiem that I was so impressed with the beginning of the Requiem with the string quartet and vocal ensemble. I thought, if the music has this power, I would like to be a musician. I was 14, and I decided to learn the cello. I studied nine years, playing all the normal repertory from Bach to Brahms, Beethoven sonatas, Dvořák concertos, Haydn, Webern, Bartók. I began as an autodidact. The first year, I started alone, with some classes from a friend of my father. I looked in the music library, and discovered some transcriptions from Marin Marais, music for viola da gamba. Through those years, besides the classical repertory, I was always playing Marais, English music, Bach sonatas. I wanted to find a viola da gamba and hear how this music sounded for viola da gamba. This was 1965, and Montserrat Figueras was singing in Barcelona in an early-music group. At that moment, the director from that group was looking for a young musician to play viola da gamba. They called me, and it was the same day I had written “look for a viola da gamba.” I got a call saying we have an instrument for you, the same day! So I think it was meant to be.

How did you develop your technique?

I spent two years studying alone, going to libraries in London, Paris, Brussels, looking at original scores. Then in 1968, I went to Basel and studied with August Wenziger, the most important of the pioneers. By then I had my own style, and I had been playing in a very different way than my teacher played. They played more like a cello; I used more the finger, using pressure to the heart of the bow. Wenziger accepted this, and he taught me like a conductor. This was great, because I was young. He was very interested in me, and he helped me a lot.

The program you’ll be doing at Cal Performances later this month is based on the feminine principle. What can you tell us about it?

This is a program by Montserrat. She has a new recording, Lux Feminae; it’s a very nice combination with seven portraits of woman. It’s a beautiful combination of Arabic, Sephardic, and Spanish songs and music.

Your daughter is also a frequent performer with you. Has working with family been a gratifying experience?

Yes, it’s fantastic. We founded this group in 1974. It will be 36 years we are playing together. La Capella Reial de Catalunya was founded in 1986, and Le Concert des Nations in 1989. We produce every year different projects, and there have been 170 recordings with all different projects.

On March 7, you’ll also be doing educational work with Philharmonia, in a program called “The Sun King’s iPod.” Why is this important to you?

I think education is very important. It’s to play different pieces of the program and explain to the children what the music presents: the instruments, aspects of the dances. It’s to get children interested in this music, not just because the music is important, but because music can be a very nice experience for them, to be part of their lives. Young people are very open, but you have to approach it with a lot of spontaneity and simplicity.

With today’s technology, you may be the first live musician they’ve experienced.

Probably. But you know, I was surprised, from young people, in 1991 when we did the music from [the 1991 film] Tous les Matins du Monde. In France, the music was in the Top 10: First was Michael Jackson; second, Tous les Matins du Monde; third, Queen. This was during four or five months. Young people discovered the music through the film. In New York, seven or eight months later, Madonna presented a new recording which was very sensual and a little provocative. In that weekend, the recording of Tous les Matins du Monde sold twice as many as Madonna [laughs]. So spiritual music won!

What do you think it was about that film, and the score, that spoke to people?

I think this film has played an important function with young people. It was very special, a very nice construction — an old man playing his instrument, in dialogue with his instrument, trying to transmit something. It was about purity, about very essential things in life. About a musician who was not ready to do any compromise, to preserve the purity of the music. These are simple things which are important for everybody, but especially for young people. It was exceptional — I don’t know too many other movies that have this intensity. It had very strong emotion. I learned a lot from this project. I had to play another way — not as a concert, not as Jordi Savall, but as Marin Marais, playing for his wife, Madeline, who is dying.

A musician plays sometimes like an actor plays Hamlet, saying, “To be or not to be.” This was for me a great lesson, and a very specific one: Can you reach a certain degree of emotion, which in the abstract is very difficult? It’s a question of attitude toward life. We are all trying to reach the ideal. We never reach it, but if you are happy staying low, you will stay low. If you try to reach something high, you will always go higher.

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