Jordi Savall, Co-Director of Celtic Universe (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)
Because of the unfortunate postponement due to illness of Yuja Wang’s piano recital, scheduled for this coming Sunday evening, San Francisco Performances (SFP) concluded its 2017–18 season last night in Herbst Theatre with a thoroughly dazzling visit from Celtic Universe. This ensemble is the sextet led jointly by Carlos Núñez and Jordi Savall, whose other members are Pancho Álvarez, Xurxo Núñez, Andrew Lawrence-King, and Franck McGuire, all playing a rich diversity of historically and culturally appropriate instruments. All of these musicians were making their SFP respective debuts.
The group’s title is intended to affirm that “Celtic tradition” cannot be confined to the remote northern regions of what would come to be known as the British Isles. Rather, the program presented the study of a practice of making music that may have originated in Ireland and Scotland but then expanded through a broad and diverse migration. That migratory path extended south (where else could it go?), eventually crossing the English Channel into Brittany. From there it followed the curve of the coast of the Bay of Biscay, crossing the Pyrenees into Basque country and then following the Camino de Santiago into Galicia.
Each of those geographic regions had its own portion of the program that Celtic Universe played last night. My guess is that very few (if any) of the selections were familiar to most of the audience. Nevertheless, the sonorities themselves tended to be familiar, involving both plucked and bowed strings, a diverse assortment of percussion instruments, and a generous assortment of pipes and whistles, including two different sets of bagpipes, all of the latter being played by Carlos Núñez. The repertoire covered a period that extended from practices that predated notation all the way to works that were created and/or collected during the nineteenth century.
However, that chronological breadth may be a bit deceptive. To the extent that last night’s program was the “story” of a migration, that migration had less to do with specific pieces of music and more with the diffusion of practices of making music. Listening to Celtic Universe play was not that different from listening to a gathering of flamenco musicians or coming across a gathering of jazz players at a New Orleans club. In each of these cases, there is a relatively well-defined shared sense of repertoire; but the players use their knowledge of repertoire as a point of departure, rather than a score to be followed, so to speak.
As a result, last night was a thoroughly engaging encounter with an approach to music-making that was probably unfamiliar to most of the audience. Furthermore, those practices were the results of a process of diffusion that took a rather large bite out of the western coastlines of Europe. Celtic Universe has made the full scope of those practices their own bread-and-butter, just as Savall’s better known ensemble, Hespèrion XXI, has done with “early music” repertoires. Those of us on audience side felt as if we had luckily encountered a gathering of music-makers taking great pleasure in their own innovative synthesis of reproduction and invention; and, because such encounters seem to occur so seldom, last night was a joyful reminder of why making music is such a stimulating undertaking.