Pomp, Pageantry and Tedium

A performance by an ensemble with the grand title of Jordi Savall & Le Concert des Nations seems to promise a music of pomp and pageantry, magisterial surety in execution, and an unobtrusive attention to the smallest details that in turn animates big ideas. One expects to hear from such a group both the sweep and specificity of history, the texture of the past made vivid in the sameness of the present.

The septuagenarian Savall is a multifaceted conductor and string player of baroque and renaissance viols and their medieval forbears; his repertoire strides across a millennium of musical epochs and regions from the Middle East to Western Europe and to the Americas. Aside from Le Concert des Nations, Savall founded that orchestra’s choral wing, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, as well as Hespèrion XX (since 2000 called Hésperion XXI). Savall has made more than 170 recordings and countless radio and television broadcasts. He reached his widest audience through his contributions to the 1991 film Tous les matins du monde devoted to the gambist Marin Marais and his enigmatic teacher Jean de Sainte-Colombe. Savall received a César for that soundtrack, which has sold more than a million copies.

Unquestioned is Savall’s indefatigable commitment to artistic projects that bridge and celebrate difference—cultural, temporal, geographic. It’s not surprising then that the director of Le Concert des Nations should himself be viewed as a diplomatic asset and asked to serve as an Ambassador for Peace for UNESCO and the European Union. This role hearkens back to a long tradition in which musicians used their talents to gain access to powerful ears in the halls and receiving rooms of European palaces. Savall is a statesman not just of early music but also of humanitarian good will: in him the artistic and moral coalesce in sounding form. Indeed, his musical missions to sometime European hotspots have ranged recently from the Ireland of the Celtic Viol  to the Spirit of the Balkans. On both these recordings he is joined by traditional musicians, and the result is a music of rigorous and sincere engagement rather than colonial exploitation.

The idea of the Concert of Nations has antecedents extending back at least to the musical pageants that helped seal the peace negotiations concluding the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. But the cooperation of European states couched in musical metaphor emerges in full force with the Congress of Vienna of 1815, which was marked by lavish musical entertainments that included the hardly conciliatory Wellington’s Victory of Beethoven, that one-time devotee of the vanquished Napoleon.

Savall’s press materials tell us that his group’s name takes “its inspiration from Les Nations, a work by François Couperin symbolizing the coming together of musical tastes and heralding a ‘European artistic space.’” The blurb then goes on to boast that Savall’s ensemble is “[the first] of its kind made up chiefly (although not exclusively) of musicians from Latin countries (Spain, Latin America, Italy, Portugal, France, etc.).” The southerly orientation of Savall’s nationals—with the one country holding a permanent seat on the UN security council pushed to the end of the parenthetical queue—strikes a distinctly sectionalist note: not all nations are equally welcome, it seems, at this particular concert. Savall’s ensemble thus brands itself as an opposing force to the Great North Sea Powers of the Early Music Movement—England, The Netherlands and Germany.

With the help of the dimming rays of the Enlightenment glance around Europe and you’ll see kindred divisions. With increasingly horrifying results the North Europeans task the Italians, Spaniards, and Greeks with stemming the immigrant tide from Africa and the Middle East. Within the Union, the Greeks attempt to resist the Troika’s beat being rapped out with the authority of Jean–Baptiste Lully striking his staff against the Versailles parquet. (Let’s see if the Troika, like Lully, hits its own toe and succumbs.) Savall’s native Catalonia appears eager to secede from Spain. Things are breaking apart.

Given these crises, Savall and his entourage would seem to have chosen a good moment to make the diplomatic rounds and offer a vision of concord in European musical affairs to the New World. Before heading to the seat of the United Nations down in Manhattan, the ensemble began its American tour in Upstate New York at Cornell University’s Barnes Hall, a small venue of brick and wood holding some two hundred seats. It’s a tried-and-true strategy for musical campaigners: work out the kinks in the provinces before journeying to the big city with wares polished and gleaming.

But among the presumed provincials of Ithaca are not only scores of well-informed amateurs and music-lovers eager to hear the famed Savall live, but also respected scholars of French baroque music and performers of international standing who hold posts at Cornell and nearby Ithaca College, itself home to a renowned School of Music. Although they seemed oblivious to the fact, the grandees of the Concert of Nations are unlikely to have the pleasure and challenge of playing for a more expert and appreciative audience than the Ithacans.

In its largest incarnation Le Concert des Nations is a full baroque orchestra. For the Ithaca appearance there were five core members: leader Jordi Savall; violinist Manfredo Kraemer (an Argentinian by birth now resident in Spain); the Hantaï brothers, Pierre and Marc on harpsichord and transverse flute respectively; and a second gambist, the Belgian Philippe Pierlot. Like diplomatic tours, musical ones take their toll on travellers thanks to jet lag, foreign beds and strange foods. The musicians did look like haggard envoys: excepting Savall’s long and immaculate black coat with its straight collar, the jackets were rumpled, the socks sagging, ties and hair askew, trousers and eyes baggy. As the musicians shuffled on stage I could detect neither enthusiasm nor statesman-like solemnity. If anything was being exuded it was exhaustion.

After the shuffling came the tuning. Two gambas have some fourteen strings between them, and although their wooden skin gleamed in comparison to that of their owners, these lovely objects might also have been suffering from jet lag. The gambas’ scrolls are carved into a human face, and as Savall and Pierlot grappled with the strings I imagined the anthropomorphized instruments reclining in business class at 39,000 feet sipping a martini and searching the video menu for a film, perhaps Tous les matins on the classic channel …

Add another four strings for the violin and some tinkering with the flute and you’ve got a lot of tuning to get through even before the music begins. Eventually we did launch on the generic itinerary through the French baroque: a potpourri program akin to a seven-day, seven-city package deal. First stop was a handful of anonymous pieces performed at a concert for Louis XIII in 1627 and collected at the end of the seventeenth century by the music librarian of Louis XIV, André Danican Philidor.

The opening number was a somber funereal march, “Les Ombres” (The Shades) and with it a distant, disembodied sound drifted from the stage. It seemed as if the musicians themselves were the ghosts evoked by the music, the players uncannily detached from their own performance.

These pieces lack the virtuosity and sophistication of the later repertoire on the program, yet within minutes the tour had its first train wreck. It was unclear who among the quintet had hit the wrong switch but the result was some five seemingly endless seconds of chaos. If there’s one thing statesmen need it is trust and this was gone before we’d even left the 1620s for the glories of the eighteenth century. The set concluded with “Les Amériquains” and what could have been a quirky, if politically incorrect take on native music by the European colonizers again pitched the sluggish locomotive from its tracks and into the chasm of discord.

One might have explained these mishaps as an attempt to accentuate the primitive qualities of French royal music before the extravagant refinements made during the long reign of Louis XIV and then into the eighteenth century of François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau. But the succession of greatest hits that followed did not restore faith in the Concert of Nations but only sapped it further, even if the general sense of dismay and disorientation was occasionally alleviated by moments of dazzle and pathos. From beginning to end violinist Kraemer wielded his arched baroque bow more like a mercenary’s machete than a courtier’s rapier. Kramer was at least twice as loud as the combined forces of two viols, a whispering flute, and a harpsichord from which emanated only a pitchless jangle even when at last the instrument was called on to take center stage in the keyboard showpiece, “La Forqueray” from Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin en concerts.

After the ensemble’s disastrous opening, the viol players were left alone on stage to penetrate the mysteries of Sainte-Colombe’s “Tombeau les Regrets,” a searching and mournful reflection on death that also just happens to be another Tous les matins chestnut. The dialogue of gorgeous instruments played by two masters, heirs to the baroque progenitors portrayed in the film, promised profundity and a much needed respite from Kraemer’s high-decibel assault. Yet the result was dutiful, tepid, hollow. Still, even in this unfulfilling performance of the Tombeau there were moments of unmatched nuance and virtuosity. But Savall’s towering talent makes his lack of communication with the audience all the more disappointing.

On stage and in his publicity photograph, Savall has the somber dignity of an El Greco nobleman. While playing, he remains immersed in his score with an isolating intensity that reminds me of another portrait—this one of Rembrandt’s mother reading a lectionary. As a live presence, visual and aural, Savall demands that the ear and eye journey to his interior world. It could be exhilarating to enter such a glowing space with a great musician, but even from fifty feet away I could not see or hear the rich colors, the fine and varied texture, the shadowy beauty.

The hit parade lumbered on through the French baroque in unrewarding and unremarkable fashion with chamber favorites by Couperin, Marais (his tintinnabulous Sonnerie de St. Geneviève du Mont-de Paris also of Tous les matins fame), Forqueray, Rameau and finally LeClair, whose fiery music emitted only a few damp wisps of smoke.

After the LeClair sonata the Sonnerie of the nearby Cornell clock tower struck ten, marking the passage of two trying hours. Most were ready to flee the hall, not least the group itself. But the rituals of state have their protocols and the formality of an encore had to be observed. At last a German—in French garb of course— was summoned: with its forlorn reading of Telemann’s Chaconne from his Sixth Paris Quartet the ensemble pronounced a fittingly lugubrious elegy to the evening. Rather than one final attempt to revive this Concert of Nations, this dismal coda confirmed the collapse of thes mission. Perhaps these statesmen of early music will recover a more grandiloquent form on the stages of European capitals and in New York City, but out in the provinces they had failed themselves, and worse, their audience.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com