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Jordi Savall in the New World

Jordi Savall, members of Tembembe Ensamble Continuo (photo by Andreu Coca)
Given the intensity of my recommendation of last night's concert by Jordi Savall, Hespèrion XXI, and company in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, it may be surprising -- or more likely, of little surprise to anyone -- to learn of my disappointment at the result. The program of music, most of it drawn from Savall's recent disc El Nuevo Mondo: Folías Criollas but in a different ordering, remains ingenious, a selection of creole folías, that is, dance music on repeating bass patterns that represents a mixture of European and Native American forms. The collaboration with the folk music-oriented Tembembe Ensamble Continuo, exploring the boundary between art and popular forms of music in the 17th and 18th centuries, is just as laudable. Most of the musical contributions were just as pleasing as those captured on the CD, with a few downsides (like the decline of Montserrat Figueras's voice) that are not likely to be changed anytime soon. My disappointment stems from the decision to amplify the musicians with individual microphones and from just how badly it made the performance sound, bringing individual voices or instruments unnaturally to the fore and amplifying even minor errors and discrepancies far beyond their actual magnitude.

Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, Jordi Savall ensemble revives exuberance of old Mexico (Washington Post, September 29)

Andrew Lindemann Malone, South of the Border (DMV Classical, September 29)
This concert was the start of a four-city U.S. tour for Savall and his associates, continuing in Ann Arbor, Houston, and Austin (Texas) -- the performance at the last venue will likely be particularly charged, following closely on the tragic events on the University of Texas campus earlier today. The Kennedy Center concert was presented as part of the Celebrate Mexico 2010 festival, marking the 200th anniversary of Mexico's independence and the 100th anniversary of the 1910 revolution. Many of the pieces from the CD have had new texts, celebrating the heritage of the new world and the union of European and indigenous musical traditions, fitted to historical music, a fitting tribute to Mexican history. The peppy rhythms of much of this music, with that telling shift between duple and triple patterns, remained irresistible, with the talented traditional dancer Donají Esparza not only providing elegant visual diversion but sating the listener's impulsion to move to the sound.

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Alex Ross, Listen to This
There were some nice additions, like the hypnotic Andalusian lullaby sung by Montserrat Figueras, as well as the hilarious chacona by Juan Arañés A la vida bona, which concluded the first half. Alex Ross features a quotation of the text from the latter piece at the beginning of the second chapter ("Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blue") of his new book Listen to This, which hit shelves today: "Chacona lyrics often emphasize the dance's topsy-turvy nature -- its knack for disrupting solemn occasions and breaking down inhibitions. [In the Arañés chacona] a surreal parade of wedding guests ensues: a blind man poking girls with a stick, an African heathen singing with a gypsy, a doctor wearing pans around his neck. Drunks, thieves, cuckolds, brawlers, and men and women of ill repute complete the scene." The doctor is none other than Asclepius, and he is accompanied by Venus, two of the mythological and historical figures who mingle with mortals in the insanity described by the poem. The rollicking fun of this scene pulsed through most of the evening, in spite of the shortcomings made worse by bad amplification. The body mike on Figueras made even more apparent the pinched limitations of her upper range, and infelicities of intonation (especially from brash-voiced singer Ada Coronel) and rhythmic ensemble stood out (the echo effect in the Seguidillas en eco, suspended in the final verse for comic effect, was observed by everyone but one stray singer, for example), as did the unattractive thwack of strongly plucked harp strings or the metallic clang of the guitars. A smaller venue, where amplification would presumably not have been necessary, would have been preferable.

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