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Jordi Savall and the musicians of Juilliard415. Photo by Hiroyuki Ito.

I’ve been intrigued by the name Jordi Savall ever since hearing that it was he who played the viola da gamba in the 1991 movie Tous les Matins du Monde, in which Gérard Dépardieu played the part of the eighteenth-century musician Marin Marais. Mr. Savall’s interpretation of pieces by François Couperin, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and Marais is what I remember most about that film. (Well that, and Mr. Dépardieu’s comical attempts to mime playing an instrument.)

The Barcelona-born Savall, one of the leaders of the early-music movement, is a prolific performer who plays over 140 concerts each year. He is also a visiting artist at Juilliard, where he works with the period-instrument ensemble Julliard415. (The name of the group comes from a particular pitch used for Baroque music.) The other night (Feb. 24), he brought the group to the Baryshnikov Arts Center, in a program of seventeenth-century incidental music on Shakespearean themes. The musicians were joined by second-year students from the drama department, who acted out short scenes from The Winter’s Tale, Macbeth, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The music was by Robert Johnson (1583-1633), Matthew Locke (1621-77), and Henry Purcell (1659-95).

Photo by Hiroyuki Ito.
Photo by Hiroyuki Ito.

Savall played the vielle—a viola-sized instrument that is held vertically between the knees rather than horizontally at the shoulder—in the first part of the evening, with music by Johnson. After that, he acted as conductor. (Yes, I was a little bit disappointed he didn’t play more.) None of the music had the plaintive quality he is famous for, but he drew a notably singing, sweet quality from his instrument. There was liveliness in the orchestra’s playing—it had swing. The players swayed and danced in their seats, visibly enjoying the music. My eye (and ear) was repeatedly struck by the melodious brio and variety of sound qualities produced by the concertmaster, the German-Argentine violinist Manfredo Kraemer. His playing was sometimes sweet, sometimes rough and fiddle-like.

Especially in the Johnson and Locke pieces, it was clear how close concert music was at the time to the dances of the court. The rhythms are dance-rhythms, strong and clear; it is the rock-and-roll of the time. The percussion—various tambourines and drums—plays a central role, with contrasting sounds (tapping, rasping, clattering, booming) and strong rhythmic shifts. The pieces included Scottish dances, a courante, a gaillard.

It was also clear how musicians of this period loved to evoke sounds in nature, and play with effects like the echo. In a section of the Locke, two musicians retired to a point outside of the theatre, responding to their counterparts onstage in a gentle conversation. In another, the recorders mimicked the fluttering of birdsong.

The fledgling actors acquitted themselves well. It’s interesting, as an outsider to dramatic training, to note that that the expectation, even for American actors, is that Shakespeare should be performed with a British accent. Perhaps the feeling is that it suits the meters and rhymes of the text. It does add a certain stagey feeling to the proceedings. Even so, the actors’ accents were convincing, the words were clear, and the situations were precisely evoked. I particularly enjoyed the argument between Titania and Oberon (played by Paton Ashbrook and David Corenswet), and the contortions of Caliban, played by Matt Malloy (I believe).

And it was fun to see how much one of the actors, Patrick Graves, was enjoying the music as he awaited his turn on the stage, bobbing his head along to the tune, just as I was.

To read another take on the evening, see here.

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