The Jerusalem Project

Joan Sutherland Theatre, April 20 

The Jerusalem Project
Jordi Savall. Photo: Daniel Boud.

This extraordinary work had its genesis in using Jerusalem’s history to depict the three major monotheistic religions musically. But what Jordi Savall has created is far greater than that. Across two hours the Jewish, Christian and Muslim music has a cumulative effect conjuring up the dream of Jerusalem shared by the faiths: a holy ideal transcending walls of stone and the city’s tumultuous history. The work becomes the vision of beauty, perfection and, above all, peace that the religions, themselves, have failed to realise.

The Jerusalem Project
Lubna Salame. Photo: Daniel Boud.

In most hands such a massively ambitious work would have become stilted. Savall – not the composer, but more the curator in a museum of heavenly delights – avoided that danger by keeping a tight rein on the music’s scale. (Not its scope: that is multifarious, with source material dating from the Old Testament to modernity, and infinite cross-cultural perspectives.) The Spaniard and his augmented Hesperion XXI ensemble eschew bravura playing (in a work where more than half the notes are improvised), opting for a more self-effacing ethos.

Not only does this imbue the project with a profound honesty, but it avoids the potential for virtuoso rivalry clouding a work dedicated to peace and reconciliation. To this end it is performed by Israelis and Palestinians as well as players from Europe and beyond.

It begins and ends with an evocation of the trumpets of Jericho, which, by the conclusion, represent the destruction not of physical walls, but of barricaded minds containing enmity, suspicion and intolerance. In between comes medieval music common to the three faiths and some of the most moving, exquisite vocal and instrumental sounds to be heard this side of heaven, including the gentle enchantment cast by Savall’s own viol and rebab. Two recordings are deftly interwoven: Shlomo Katz’s heart-rending Hymn To The Victims Of Auschwitz and one by soprano Montserrat Figueras, Savall’s late wife.

The Jerusalem Project
Mahmud Husein. Photo: Daniel Boud.

To have Israel’s Lubna Salame and Palestine’s Mahmud Husein singing together in the finale makes one’s breast ache with hope.