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La Fenice and Arianna Savall, Dumbarton Oaks

Arianna Savall, sopranoThe season of concerts presented by the Friends of Music at Dumbarton Oaks came to a magnificent conclusion this weekend. The French early music ensemble La Fenice performed a mostly 17th-century program related to the pilgrimage route stretching from Strasbourg to Santiago de Compostela. Soprano Arianna Savall added her voice and Gothic harp playing to the versatile performances of the three members of La Fenice, on diverse combinations of voice and instruments. (This concert was created for the AMIA Festival, hosted by the Amis de la Musique sur Instruments Anciens in Strasbourg, this past February.)

Compostela's great church was the destination of such great numbers of pilgrims because it claimed to house the relics of the Apostle James. This ingenious concert brought together religious pieces, mostly in honor of Saint James the Great, with examples of the less than holy activities associated with pilgrimage. As far back as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, pilgrimage was for some people little more than an excuse for tourism. Beginning with a group of travelers in Strasbourg, the route takes us to Avignon, where the French pilgrims meet a group of Italians, who sing a lauda, and to Narbonne, where we hear songs in Occitan. As the group passes through Spain, we hear music in Spanish and Catalan, concluding with an ingenious villancico by Francisco Soler, describing the crush of pilgrims from every nation and language racing to reach the cathedral first.

Previously at Dumbarton Oaks:

Cuarteto Casals (February 19, 2007)

Hopkinson Smith, lute (November 4, 2006)

Paolo Pandolfo, viola da gamba (January 23, 2006)

Musica Alta Ripa (May 10, 2005)
Intellectually and musicologically, the concert was a success, presenting as it did an assortment of interesting obscurities, performed mostly from copies of original sources with consummate care for historical detail. Furthermore, this was an evening of pure musical enjoyment, not least because of the honey-rich, molasses-tinged voice of Arianna Savall, daughter of the renowned Catalunyan viola da gamba player Jordi Savall. Not surprisingly, her pronunciation was stronger when the pilgrims arrived in Spain, but her French is certainly good enough to be understood. The only downside of the evening was the positive organ, which hummed electrically on a pitch that never quite fit any of the final chords it followed. In general, this music would have benefited from a grander acoustic than the humble Refectory, the temporary concert venue at Dumbarton Oaks during the renovation.

The members of La Fenice sang, but it was their instrumental work that was most impressive. Jean Tubéry's solos on the cornetti stood out: difficult instruments that made sweet sounds in his hands. Mélanie Flahaut's turns on the Baroque bassoon were particularly fine, especially her duet with Tubéry on Bartolomeo de Selma y Salaverde's Canzon per canto e basso. Michaël Hell showed flair and strong technique on the difficult harpsichord parts, in particular the Jacara by Bertolomeu de Olague and Andrea Falconiero's Folias para mi Señora Dona Tarolilla de Carallenos.

The Friends of Music are accepting subscriptions for their new season of concerts. Next year the concerts will return to their intended venue, the refurbished Music Room in the main building.

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