The accepted belief is that Jordi Savall’s genius is in the range of the musical pilgrimages he takes audiences on. Wasn’t it 1,000 years’ worth of Venice just a concert season or so ago? Now it’s to dance-crazy Celtic areas of Scotland, Brittany and the Basque country in northern Spain for the Celtic Universe concert at Toronto’s Koerner Hall on Thursday. No sweat. To span the 400 years in some two hours chock-a-block with jigs, airs and stuff that sounds suspiciously like early rock ‘n’ roll comes as naturally to the 76-year-old Spanish viol master as hitting warp drive does to a Star Trek fleet commander. (Varying in size, the ancient viol is related to the modern cello.)
Yet this masks Savall’s other genius as an astute follower of fluctuating demands of the contemporary concert market place. On stage he looks like a penitent monk hunched over his viol, his rather gaunt face suggesting Mick Fleetwood as drawn by El Greco. But his marketing savvy is indicated by his unprecedented success – more than 100 recordings, many on his own label Alia Vox – playing your great-great-great-grandmother’s music as if it was downloaded just yesterday. Only cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble has approached this level of success.
“We tell Jordi what the market conditions are,” says Rob Robbins, CEO of Alliance Artist Management, the New York-based management firm. “He tells us what he wants to do.”
In a sense, Savall is one of the concert business’s populist reformers – maybe it’s the Catalan in him – revealing how traditions must be revisited to keep them meaningful. “Jordi brings to life what is in plain sight,” says Robbins, who handles mid-sized ensembles such as So Percussion for the increasing number of new, non-traditional venues such as the San Francisco Symphony’s nightclub-like live concert SoundBox. “His music is not hard to find in its original form. But he saw that other early-music practitioners were largely academic. So he looked beyond the music to find what exactly was the context of the music. This is not music for the glass case in a museum.”
Savall – at least as far back as 1974 with the formation of a group now called Hesperion XXI – had been part of a tectonic shift in the idea of “classical.” School and music curriculums had been leading the way in this new understanding and what it in turn means to new audience-building. Younger listeners, most raised on pop, want more from a concert-going experience than warmed-over Beethoven and the rest of the traditional classical meat-and-potatoes buffet.
“More and more professors (and certainly virtually all graduate students) have long ago realized that Western art music is just one of innumerable music traditions out there,” York University’s Rob Bowman, the Grammy Award-winning ethnomusicologist, writes in an e-mail to me. “And indeed it is one with an ever-shrinking audience.”
Along the way, Savall felt that playing so-called classical music – even if his Bach is ground-breaking and a pure joy – has come to mean turning “classical music into a work of restoration,” as he says.
To him, music must be new each time it’s played. Improvisation is important, and constant adjustments are made between and even during songs. The adjustments are the devils in the details – the good devils, actually. Thursday’s version of Regents Rant -Lord Moira from the Lord Moira Set is unlikely to be identical to Regents Rant in the Abergeldie Castle Set included on Savall’s recent release The Celtic Viol II. Adjustments mean a living touch is present, adding to the thrill of Celtic music’s “character, technique, ornamentation, style and performance,” as he writes.
Another adjustment he constantly makes is in personnel. Bodhran drummer Frank McGuire and multiharpist Andrew Lawrence-King are both from the recent CD’s lineup. For the Koerner Hall concert they’re joined by guitarist Pancho Alvarez, percussionist Xurxo Nunez and Carlos Nunez, the remarkable piper from Galicia in northern Spain who has worked with Ry Cooder, the Jordi Savall of rock ‘n’ roll.
Jordi Savall presents Celtic Universe on May 10 at 8 p.m. at Koerner Hall in Toronto .