If there's a central musical meeting point for folk and classical, sacred and secular, ancient and modern, Jordi Savall found it, and has lived there for decades.
His beginnings as a cellist, his continued work with the earliest surviving Iberian music, and his recent explorations of ethnic music have yielded his ever-growing "The Routes of Slavery" program that arrives at the Annenberg Center at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 1. Some 25 musicians from Spain, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and Venezuela will trace the progression of slave songs from the 15th century on, interspersed with readings documenting the brutality of those eras, and concluding with the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Having first toured the program in 2016 in conjunction with a book-size, two-CD recording, the Barcelona-based Savall is working on a sequel encompassing Cuba and Puerto Rico. Philadelphia listeners will get a bit of a preview.
"It's one of the most complex programs I've ever had," Savall said recently. "It's a moment when people need to understand what happened … when humans treat other persons like they're animals. To survive, the slaves would sing in order to remember who they are. Music was a space of freedom. When they were allowed to sing and dance, it was the most essential moment in their lives."
Somber and explosively exuberant moments exist side by side with colorful, traditional costumes, to judge from YouTube videos of past concerts.
"He's one of the few musicians who is truly diving into such topics," said Christopher A. Gruits, Annenberg Center executive and artistic director, who is bringing in major early-music groups that have missed Philadelphia in the past. "He dives deep and comes up … with fresh and interesting programs and has gone through so many time periods."
Only now is Savall, 78, making his Philadelphia debut, a long way from the 1991 film Tous les Matins du monde, which brought him to international attention. Savall contributed the delicate, meditative score, winning him a Cesar Award (the French Oscar). The soundtrack album sold a million copies. Before that, Savall had been part of the early-music think tank/conservatory in Basel, Switzerland, and he worked with historic-instrument pioneers such as Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. He has made more than 100 recordings, many with his Hesperion XXI ensemble and his late wife, soprano Montserrat Figueras, that are lavishly packaged on his own AliaVox label. His deeply researched books have been published in eight languages.
Since Figueras' 2011 death from cancer, Savall has vowed not to reprise repertoire that was associated with her uniquely smoky voice. Yet he keeps building musical bridges from his Catalan heritage. Albums such as Hispania & Japan: Dialogues, Bal-Kan: Honey & Blood — Cycles of Life and Jerusalem: City of Two Peaces, Heavenly Peace and Earthly Peace have had him working with Japanese, Arab, Israeli, Serbian, and Turkish musicians (among others) whom he auditions from all over the world.
Often, that means managing players with huge political differences among themselves. "I've had great difficulty with musicians who don't like to play together," he said. "But I think music … comes from a much more far-away place than any other art of communication."
The soft-spoken Savall doesn't espouse a music-cures-everything philosophy, but he does believe that once wars and skirmishes have ended, his work starts, whether he's assembling concerts with a strong idealistic backbone or touring Syrian refugee camps. As much as he feels an artistic kinship with Yo-Yo Ma's cross-cultural Silk Road Ensemble, he more readily admires Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, formed in 1999 to bring together Arab and Israeli musicians at a time when musicians on both sides were barely speaking.
Savall's own journey has been similarly fraught. One concert in Turkey was canceled because it dealt with the 1915 Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire. He turned down a major award from the Spanish government, citing "dramatic disinterest" and "grave incompetence" in the government's policies toward the arts. He's thought to be an advocate for Catalan independence, but he speaks more for the simple right to vote on the matter. He has performed in Israel but now declines engagements there due to the Israel army's actions against Gaza.
What helped put Savall on his singular path was something of a conversion experience he had with humble Sephardic songs that, to his ears, had an unrecognized artistic stature. "We always put this type of music in a second category," he said. "When given a performance with huge emotions, Sephardic songs can have the depth of a Bach aria."
Dating to medieval times, Sephardic music also was part of a heady cultural crossroads that included North African influences and Iberian music, from ethereal religious music to the 13th-century Cantigas de Santa Maria, a collection of songs whose words praise the Blessed Virgin Mary but whose manner is often earthy and raucous. Savall has performed them all and has three different ensembles to accommodate that panorama: the mixed-instrument, chamber-size Hesperion XXI; the larger, more orchestral Le Concert des Nations; and the vocal group La Capella Reial de Catalunya.
Presiding over so many kinds of music can mean ceding the spotlight to guest performers who have been living with the music their entire lives, especially in programs such as "The Routes of Slavery," which includes much exuberant Caribbean music. He will be more on home territory with the French baroque program (he played in Tous les Matins du monde) Feb. 22 at Princeton's McCarter Theatre. But it's hard to say what isn't home territory for Savall: He will conduct and record all nine Beethoven symphonies over the next three years — music that is studied exhaustively on its own terms, unlike medieval music that survives in fragmented notation requiring improvisation or even co-composition to fill in the blanks.
If there's a Savall trademark, it's that he dresses the music in unusually rich outer garments. Some of his colleagues are more inclined to preserve what's there rather than speculate about what might have been. Savall has frankly likened his music to time travel — no surprise, as his performances often give a sense of the larger world the music came from. One of his more solemn albums ends with celebratory bagpipes. "To me, authenticity is not when you play the music in the style of the period. Authenticity is when you are inside the music and understand why this has to be like this. It's the necessity of the music," he said. "And that's not something you necessarily learn from a conservatory."
If he has a stealth weapon, it's time.
During the academic years in Basel, he and Figueras pursued any number of research avenues that yielded programs years later. Savall said he heard his first slave song some 15 years ago, and that set him on his way to the current program. Before his current Beethoven symphony recording project, he recorded the politically influenced Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica") in 1997.
Many musicians of his stature dismiss their previous work, especially older recordings. Instead, Savall has purchased recordings he made for other labels (including EMI and Astree) and put them out on AliaVox: "Every recording is a result of a life's work, of research and experience, expressing music of high quality and with emotional authenticity."
Yes, even those made under fraught circumstances: One venue near an airport forced Savall to record at 4 a.m. "You're tired. You have to bring something exceptional to the music. But when you work so intensely," he says, "that stays forever."