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Music Review

Searching for common roots in plaintive music of Jerusalem

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / May 7, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE — In a poem about his home city, Yehuda Amichai once wrote that “the air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams.’’

That quality comes through in Jordi Savall’s ambitious “Jerusalem’’ project, a tour of some 2,000 years of music that has connected Jews, Christians, and Muslims to that spiritual capital.

But Amichai’s poem continues, noting that, as in many industrial cities, the air in Jerusalem is also “hard to breathe.’’ That too, unfortunately, applies to Savall’s nobly intentioned work. There were more than a few exquisite musical moments and individual songs of arresting beauty in the performance by Savall and colleagues at Sanders Theatre on Wednesday night, a presentation of the Boston Early Music Festival. But as a concert experience, “Jerusalem: City of the Two Peaces’’ tends to feel stymied by the weight of its own sincerity and its single-minded insistence on showing us that beneath present-day differences and strife, Jews, Christians, and Muslims share common musical and spiritual roots.

Savall, the eminent Spanish gambist and early music pioneer, dreamed up this project in 2007 with his wife, the soprano Montserrat Figueras. In addition to tapping his own ensembles, Hespèrion XXI and La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Savall also recruited dozens of performers from Israel, Palestine, Armenia, Greece, and Iraq, including the Al-Darwish Sufi ensemble and the Trumpets of Jericho. In total, more than 40 musicians crowded onto the stage on Wednesday and played from the balconies. The musical journey was roughly chronological, with three central episodes devoted to Jerusalem as a Jewish, Christian, and Muslim city, respectively.

It all began with dramatic flourish, as groups of musicians with shofars and ancient anafir trumpets deployed around the hall and blasted out a wonderfully cacophonous fanfare. But the visceral energy dispatched in that call to order was not to be sustained. Very quickly the performers pulled back to an expressive baseline of reserve and refinement. There were recitations of evocative texts (in Latin, French, Hebrew, and Arabic) and a few larger ensemble numbers, but the bulk of the program consisted of individual singers or small groups offering psalm settings, chants, crusader songs, and much more, based on religious texts and poetry written over two millennia.

Many of the individual vocal performances had sensitive accompaniment, and some of the singing, by Figueras and others, was spellbinding in its purity and eloquence. But overall this project seemed to over-italicize its point about cultural commonalities such that the selections, despite their distinct origins, felt oddly monochrome in their expressive colorings. Nearly every song was delivered within a plaintive trope of longing. Yes, many of the musical traditions of both Spain and the Middle East have cross-pollinated over the centuries — but differences in style and content remain and one wished this impressively multicultural group was encouraged to trumpet more of its own internal diversity.

That would have required much more individual freedom, yet these players seemed to be scripted as solemn custodians of ancient traditions. The three-hour program felt lengthy, yet at the same time having only three hours for 2,000 years of music precluded real fine-grained comparisons. Near the end, Savall returned to his thesis by fixing on a melody that appears, with different words, in all the musical traditions represented by the project. The performers eventually sang it as a group in five different languages at once. It was hard to miss the interpretive point; at the same time, and clearly by design, you couldn’t understand a word.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

BOSTON EARLY MUSIC FESTIVAL With Jordi Savall, Hespèrion XXI, and guests

“Jerusalem: City of the Two Peaces’’

At: Sanders Theatre, Wednesday night