Imagine the courtyard of an abbey that's 1,000 years old with the granite crags of a steep hill in the background. As dusk approaches, hundreds of people find their places in rows of temporary seating. In front of them, once the sky turns fully dark, Jordi Savall and four other players take seats in comfy chairs on a raised platform.
Catalan-born Savall, an early music master and expert on the viola da gamba, is a true heavyweight. Among his many awards and accolades, he holds the French Legion of Honor and has been appointed the European Union ambassador for intercultural dialogue. Next to Savall we see an Irish harp player, two percussionists, and a guitar player. Savall begins tuning. (As the evening progresses, we learn that Savall is the Leo Kottke of early music, tuning whenever he has the chance, even quietly during pieces while other players are featured. He can't be blamed. It's a cool, humid night and his instruments are sensitive to the conditions.)
From the back of the courtyard. we hear bagpipes. Enter Carlos Nunez. No slouch himself, piper Nunez has collaborated with Ry Cooder and some of my favorite Celtic musicians including Sharon Shannon and Altan. He appeared on an Grammy-winning album with the Chieftains. Take a listen:
Could the concert have lived up to such a buildup? Most definitely. The ensemble played for two and one-half hours without a break - except to listen to Savall tune. At the end, folks were literally dancing in the aisles. The night was part of the annual series of concerts that Savall produces at Fontfroide, and Savall's work on the viola da gamba and viola da braccio were featured. Would Natalie MacMaster's modern fiddle work have produced more fireworks? Quite possibly. But Savall worked hard and Nunez provided sufficient energy to fuel the entire evening.
Every year Savall brings something different to Fontfroide. Last year we heard the music of slavery, from Africa to the Caribbean, from Brazil to Mexico to the American south. This year it was Celtic and Celtic-inspired music from Galicia and New Breton. We'll be on hand next year to see what else Savall has up his sleeve.