By Fotios Kaliampakos
This year, Carnegie Hall is organizing a large festival on the arts legacy of the “Serenissima,” the sea empire of Venice that lasted almost a thousand years. Venice was a unique historical phenomenon: as a very small city, in a relatively isolated and unattractive lagoon, it dominated the Mediterranean world for close to a millennium and had a huge impact on the modern world. Venetian dominance began declining in the 18th century and came to an end during the Napoleonic Wars with the Treaty of Campo Formio in 1797, which ended its independence.
Responsible for the music content of the festival is the renowned Catalan musician Jordi Savall, who has devoted his life to the music of the pre-Classical era. After introducing the project during an interview at Columbia University’s Italian Academy on February 2, Savall lead the ensembles Hesperion and Le Concert de Nation, as well as musicians from several countries as they opened the Festival at Carnegie Hall on the following day.
The first performance was devoted to the Byzantine origins of Venice (a usually forgotten, but important detail) as well as its connections to the East that lasted throughout its existence and had a historical perspective. The audience could follow the chronology of the Venetian Empire via text projections behind the stage.
In order for the audience to understand and actually listen to the Eastern part of the history of Venice, Jordi Savall gave a major role to the Orthodox Byzantine Vocal Ensemble from Salonica. The six-member ensemble functions under the auspices of the scientific society Romanos o Melodos and is led by Panagiotis Neochoritis who holds the honorable position of the First Chanter of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
The Ensemble sang ancient Orthodox hymns from the whole period of the history of Venice from 828 onward, with an excellent coordination, with respect to the texts and the tradition, slow in rhythm and the relatively low in volume performance stole the spotlight at the Stern Auditorium and was applauded warmly by the audience, which did not seem to have had much experience of this tradition before.
The somber, deeply religious atmosphere of the Orthodox hymns, with different musical parameters and, of course, notation (different from the Western tradition) created not only a musical, but also a philosophic-historical contrast with the rest of the program, which included melodies from many places that the ships of the Doge could reach, among them Armenia, Turkey, North Africa, as well as music by the most famous composers of the Baroque era of Venice itself, Antonio Vivaldi and Claudio Modeverdi.
Some of the pieces were also interesting from a Greek perspective: the lament for the Fall of Constantinople by the French composer Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474) presented the City as betrayed by everyone; the Hymn to Asia, with reference to Marco Polo, calls Asia the “daughter of the King of Alexandria,” while the Erotocritos-Ballad reminded listeners of the Venetian influence on the Cretan Renaissance literature.
Coming closer to the last years of Venice in the era of revolutions, a vocal arrangement with melodies from Beethoven’s 5th and 7th symphonies with revolutionary texts in French was presented, before the Greek ensemble closed the historical journey with a transcendent ancient Christian hymn for peace.
Jordi Savall will return to Carnegie Hall on February 11 to explore this time, looking west, the huge impact of Venice to the Western Musical Tradition.