Jordi Savall and friends explore the richly varied music of Venice
Throughout its history the Republic of Venice was a multicultural crossroads, a situation that may sound familiar. Although its origins were Byzantine, after the schism between Catholic and Orthodox churches, it fell into the Roman Catholic sphere of Christianity. The city had long, strong ties with and holdings in the Middle East and North Africa, but it was soon in the crosshairs of the Ottoman Turks.
This was the point of the epic concert program “The Millenarian Venice: Gateway to the East,” led by Jordi Savall and performed by several ensembles Saturday night at the Library of Congress. As Savall said at the end of 2-½ hours of music in a bewildering array of styles, perceived cultural differences, even those that seem insurmountable to some, need not be an obstacle to peace and harmony.
All of this music, it quickly became evident, was cut from the same cloth. The selection of pieces encouraged comparison of Byzantine and Orthodox chants to folk music from Armenia, North Africa, Turkey, and Persia, and then back again to Jewish and Catholic liturgical music and European secular music. The order was chronological, with a hefty program booklet coordinating the musical progression to the major events of Venetian history. Improvised intonations on instruments from various traditions further blurred the boundaries between cultures, as did performance of some of the works by a mixed consort of eastern and western instruments.
The performers and their instruments filled every corner of the stage, with risers lifting some of them up at the back, and some groups exited the stage and returned as necessary. Precentor Panagiotis Neochoritis, recently appointed as head chanter of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, led the performances of the Byzantine chant. It is uncommon indeed to hear this music performed by liturgical singers outside of a service. Special lighting darkened the room when they appeared, spotlighting his five-man vocal ensemble from Thessaloniki in a sort of halo when they performed. In most of the pieces, the five men provided the special drones that accompany Orthodox chant, with Neochoritis doing most of the chanting on his own. The effect, though obviously authentic, was less imposing than the sound a full choir makes in an Orthodox sanctuary, but the cantillation style, involving bends, ornaments, chromatic and even microtonal flavors, was easy to connect to similar stylistic elements in the folk music.
Four musicians on Mediterranean instruments of various kinds performed examples of folk music. These pieces generally opened in a rhapsodic mode, often with improvisatory introductions, moving into a more rhythmically active mode propelled by drums and other percussion. While this music is texturally simple, just a single melodic line played with many variations by all the instruments, it is extremely complex in terms of rhythm and chromatic content. Haïg Sarikouyoumdjian stood out for particular praise for his playing on the duduk, the double-reed flute from Armenia, which created a sound uncannily like the human voice.
Of the soloists from La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Italian baritone Furio Zanasi was a sensation, beginning on a 12th-century crusader song, “Pax! In nomine domini,” performed in a way that recalled the sound of the Orthodox chanters in many ways. Zanasi also led a sharply defined rendition of Monteverdi’s spectacular Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, his fluid and dramatic narration supported by the agitated tremolos and other string innovations, an early instance of what Monteverdi called the stile concitato. Musicians from Savall’s medieval and Renaissance ensemble, Hespèrion XXI, and his Baroque group, Le Concert des Nations, joined the fray as the program moved into their areas of specialization.
The whole ensemble gave memorable performances of some of the most famous works of music history, nicely related to the conflicts of the Venetian region, including Guillaume Dufay’s solemn lament for the fall of Constantinople and Salomone Rossi’s polyphonic setting of Psalm 137 in Hebrew. The clatter of shrieking fifes, blaring shawms and cornetti, and drums and clanging cymbals, the sounds used by the Turkish Janissaries to terrify their enemies, sounded memorably in the 15th-century Ottoman Nikriz March.
In an ingenious move, Savall arranged Mozart’s famous Alla turca (Allegretto), meant to imitate that sound, for the same sort of ensemble, to charming and hilarious effect. Perhaps the most famous musical evocation of the chaotic sounds of battle, Clément Janequin’s La Guerre: La Bataille de Marignan, was a tour de force in the hands of this large ensemble, a delightful cacophony of shouts, trumpet calls, and grisly deaths.
After another paean to battle, Luigi Bordèse’s charming La Sainte Ligue: La nuit est sombre, concluded the second half, a pastiche cobbled together from the funeral march of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and the martial conclusion of his Fifth Symphony. Although the evening was already long, Savall and his musicians proffered a massive encore. This immense prayer for peace began with the Orthodox choir’s chant for peace, proceeded seamlessly into a moving improvisation by the masterful Sarikouyoumdjian on the duduk, and continued with the Latin chant Da pacem Domine, a demand for peace in our days. This led convincingly into a most moving performance of Arvo Pärt’s setting of that text, a piece commissioned by Savall in 2004 to commemorate the train bombings in Madrid. From their lips to God’s ears.
The free series at the Library of Congress features contempoary music ensemble Either/Or 8 p.m. February 18. loc.gov/concerts