Spaniard Jordi Savall, “spy” of early music, brings his ensemble to Ottawa

Renowned bandleader, conductor and viola da gamba player, and band Hespèrion XXI will perform at the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Center

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Jordi Savall & Hespèrion XXI: Fantasies, Battles and Dances
When: Tuesday, Nov. 8, 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Where: Dominion Chalmers Center of Carleton
Tickets: from $20 to $75 at

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Jordi Savall compares the pioneering musical work he did more than five decades ago to the efforts of an archaeologist or even a spy.

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Then the Spaniard, now 81, visited the great libraries of Europe to delve into their storehouses of Renaissance and Baroque music. He was on a quest to research the history and music of the viola da gamba, a stringed instrument that was replaced in popularity by the violin and cello.

“It was like exploring ancient treasures in the desert,” Savall recalls. And while researching what is known as early music has become much easier since the advent of the internet, Savall says, “That difficulty makes life more interesting.

At one point, Savall spent a week in Paris, poring over letters, dictionaries and books containing the original music for viola da gamba by composers such as François Couperin, Marin Marais and Sainte Colombe.

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“I was amazed,” Savall says. “I discovered hundreds of pieces, each one more beautiful than the other, and no one was playing them.”

In the 1970s, Savall had to buy microfilms of his precious finds, “like a spy,” he jokes. At home he would use a projector to display the music on his walls and then he would play. Later he bought a machine capable of printing copies of the microfilm.

All this effort was worth it.

“At a certain point, the music tells you, if you have sensitivity and information,” he says. “When you repeat a piece after a while, the music gives you ideas. Each composition of these composers has the beauty of emotion. You have to find a way to bring this to life.

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Savall’s dedication and passion made him a key figure in the popularization of early music and the viol family. Much more than a historian, he is a conductor, conductor and viola da gamba player, and he brings his acclaimed group Hespèrion XXI to the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Center on Tuesday.

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Music has been an integral part of Savall’s life since childhood. He fondly remembers his mother’s beautiful singing voice and he sang in a choir from age six to 13. “When you start so early, music becomes like a very important language for you,” Savall says.

At age 14, when he was a fan of Elvis Presley who played guitar, harmonica and percussion, Savall heard a string quartet rehearse and was so moved that he decided to be a musician and study the cello.

“As soon as I had a cello, I found my home,” Savall says. “It was an amazing experience, when you start something from scratch, and you play a melody and use the bow slowly to make a nice sound.”

He quotes Mark Twain: “There are two important dates in the life of a human being, the date you were born and the date you find out what you were born. I discovered the cello or the gamba, it’s the same, having a bow and having fingers that make beautiful music.

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In his early twenties, Savall took up the viola da gamba. He had already played music written for this instrument, but on his cello, and another musician suggested he try the gamba. This instrument has frets like a guitar and more strings than a cello, and it requires a different bowing technique and grip, in which the middle finger touches the bow strings.

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“This finger does the pressure and this finger was called ‘l’âme de la musique’ (the soul of music),” Savall says. “You have direct contact with sound. You can control everything, from the most minimal movement to the strongest.

The viola da gamba “has the most, a beautiful subtlety in the sound…you can talk, you can say in your love’s ears, ‘I love you,’ very sweet,” he says.

During his career, Savall recorded over 100 albums, including the entire repertoire for viola da gamba and 60 albums with his Hespèrion project, which he formed in 1974. Over the years, the project has embraced a cohort of musicians, including Savall’s wife, soprano Montserrat Figueras, who died in 2011, and their children Arianna, singer and harpist, and Ferran, guitarist.

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After the performance of Hespèrion XXI in New York in 2005, renowned music critic Alex Ross wrote in the New Yorker: “One musical boundary after another seemed to blur — boundaries between past and present, composition and improvisation, ‘popular and ‘classic’, ‘East and West. Age-old songs and dances shone with sadness and jumped with joy.

“As (Savall) illustrated with a few phrases on his viola da gamba, a sentimental vision of world unity took on heartbreaking force,” Ross wrote.

Savall is happy that his band’s repertoire is so broad and that it connects and uplifts people.

“Music is the main language of human beings,” he says. “If you like to know how people from a different culture are, you have to know the music.

“You can feel the music right in your heart,” he continues. “We need music. Without music, life would be a disaster. Music is what gives us hope and happiness.

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