Saturday, October 25, 2008

El Macho de la Mancha: Friends of Chamber Music brings Abraham, Savall for Don Quixote tribute

By Paul Horsley

On the face of it, it seems like a pretty straightforward task: seek out the many musical sources mentioned throughout Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, find them in contemporary sources, arrange them in a style-conscious manner and perform them in concert. Yet it took more than 400 years after the publication of the epic novel for someone to do just that.

On Friday at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, early-music polymath and gambist Jordi Savall brought a dozen or so musicians and actor F. Murray Abraham to present what is surely one of the most ingenious programs ever to grace a local stage. This concert version of Savall’s award-winning CD (on the Alia Vox Spain label) was the season-opener for the Friends of Chamber Music’s Early Music Series, and the huge church was packed to the rafters.
Don Quijote de la Mancha: Romances y Músicas was constructed by locating ballads and songs from the Quixote text, many of which are preserved in songbooks from the period, and presenting them either straight or in existing polyphonic settings. In cases where only text exists, Savall and his collaborators have located period tunes that closely match the poetry’s mood and scan.

Of course there was plenty of guesswork in creating this program, but it’s hard to imagine anyone today who is better-informed than Savall as to the repertoire and performance practice of early Spain.

To “set up” the songs, Abraham recited lead-in passages from the Cervantes text, in the witty, poignant, richly textured voice that made him so effective in Amadeus and other films. I was sitting pretty far back, and found myself wishing his microphone had been set a bit louder.

Accompanying the singers of La Capella Reial de Catalunya was Savall’s chamber orchestra Hespèrion XXI, a variegated array of gambas, guitar, double harp, winds, organ and percussion. Cervantes’ text sometimes specifies which instruments are playing, permitting another level of authenticity.

There is much sadness in Cervantes’ mad knight, and accordingly much of the music here — too much, perhaps, considering the violence and raucousness of the tale unfolding — seemed baleful and droopy. But the male vocal ensemble was fine, and moody songs like the Francisco Salinas’ “Media noche era por filo” were gorgeously gauged. The instrumentalists were top-drawer, with Arianna Savall sometimes singing while accompanying herself on harp.

After all that, the ending was pretty jarring. Cervantes’ Quixote spends his last years in a great melancholy, and dies cured of his sanity but broken in spirit. Savall’s two-disc CD of Quixote includes more music than we were served, and it ends appropriately with the knight’s sadness and death. On Friday we got a zippy Chaconne as a finale instead, an oddly upbeat ending for a program striving to convey the spirit of Cervantes’ classic.
To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to