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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 7 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 10
Hespèrion XXI and Tembembe Ensamble Continuo brought out the cheers and standing ovations
Arts & Entertainment
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Hespèrion XXI and Tembembe Ensamble Continuo brought out the cheers and standing ovations

by Adam Ross - SGN A&E Writer

HESPERION XXI AND
TEMBEMBE ENSAMBLE CONTINUO
'FOLIAS ANTIGUAS & CRIOLLAS:
FROM THE ANCIENT WORLD
TO THE NEW WORLD'
EARLY MUSIC GUILD
TOWN HALL
February 28


Jordi Savall is a giant in the world of early music, and a popular return performer to this year's Early Music Guild's International Series. For this visit, Savall drew upon his band of international European performers under the Hespèrion XXI moniker, including the peerless British harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King - another welcome returning instrumentalist. Yet, this outing brought a surprise of sorts, as Savall augmented his group with the three singers/players who comprise the Tembembe Ensamble Continuo from Mexico, and their contributions brought a unique and unexpected 'south-of-the-border' levity to the concert.

Alternating between treble and bass viols, Savall played with intense, serious focus heightened by his demeanor that seems to channel the spirit of a 17th century Spanish nobleman straight out of an el Greco painting. This spirit opened the show, with Savall intoning the famous Renaissance tune 'la Spagna' as an introit to the Spanish theme of bringing this ancient music to the New World - both in history, as well as in the present day coming to Seattle! Other players came in discreetly, the Tembembe players adding light flourishes of guitar and percussion to the haunting melody. Savall continued playing several 'folias,' or improvised melodies played over repeated bass figures. Usually played on the harp - these alternated between austere and nostalgic, but followed with gradually more lively, complex figurations, with Savall demonstrating his nimble but never overtly showy virtuosity.

On the surface, these opening pieces would have seemed to set the scene for an evening of hypnotic but serious music making. This mood, however, quickly went out the window with the playing of the Tembembe group leading the 'lascivious dances' (as no less than Cervantes himself called this music, as explained in the concert notes) of the 'Jácaras (Song from Tixtla).' Here, we were suddenly transported to a Mexican cantina, as it were, as one may have existed in 1750. Singers Ulises Martínez and Leopoldo Novoa alternated their singing in a 'call and response' format not unfamiliar to lovers of Hispanic folk music. The flavor of the performance was fun and spicy, and a world away from the sobriety of the strictly European music. This spirit in turn seemed to spur on Savall to perform more unbridled and daring variations in his solos that followed. It was fascinating to see him perform with the internal focus of a patrician master, his face betraying virtually no emotion, yet the sheer physical exertion of his playing brought out a seething muscularity to this music that was unexpected from a player who generally exhibits such technical control and an impassive outward expression.

In the second half, Savall opened alone, playing a trio of traditional Celtic viol pieces, which served as a palate cleanser of sorts from the more overtly demonstrative Spanish and Hispanic pieces. The whole ensemble returned to play another assortment of folias and New World dances with panache, verve and even more daring. Their borderline wild playing brought out the cheers and standing ovations of the packed Town Hall audience, who were rewarded with another spirited and sensuous dance encore. On paper, much of this ancient music might appear dry and dusty, but in performance by these splendid musicians, it was anything but. Instead, it was an evening of music - rare, inspiring and fun - unlikely to be repeated anytime soon.

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