After a long career performing and recording most of the canon of western European early music, in recent years Jordi Savall has turned his attentions to the relationships of music in the Middle East, northern Africa, Spain and the Balkan countries. His explorations of world music constantly remind listeners of the influence of this music on what evolved over centuries into western classical music as well as continuing on its own artistic path. On 1 November, Savall and the latest incarnation of his performing group Hespèrion XXI performed on the Performing Arts Series at the Cleveland Museum of Art to a mostly full house.

The full title of the program was “Bal•Kan: Honey and Blood, the Cycles of Life in the Mosaic of Christians, Muslims, Ottomans & Sephardic and Armenian Diasporas of the Balkan peoples”. Bal•Kan refers to the Turkish words for "honey and blood" and is the origin of the geographic area we know as the Balkans, which was once part of the vast Ottoman Empire.

With Savall himself playing vielle and rebec (both bowed string instruments) and offering subtle direction, Hespèrion XXI consisted of two female singers, three male singers and six instrumentalists playing instruments found in the Middle East, Balkans and southern Europe. The musicians were from Bulgaria, France, Israel, Turkey, Armenia and Spain. A very thorough essay about the history of the Balkans and the diaspora of the Balkan peoples was printed in the program booklet, but there was no discussion of the music itself. For the vast majority of the audience the music was totally unfamiliar, so, although there were projected translations of the sung texts, this lack of detail was in reality an advantage, letting the audience use its collective ears and imaginations to make connections with the performances.

The program was divided into the seasonal cycle (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter) with an introduction (“Creation”) and epilogue (“(Re)conciliation”), seamlessly moving from one to another. Music from Greece and Turkey merged into Sephardic, Serbian and Bulgarian songs. The most striking example was the last song on the program, which included five different texts (Hebrew, Greek, Turkish, Serbian, and Sephardic dialect of Spanish), all to the same tune. At the end, all of the different variations were combined into a Babel of diversity, but clearly of the same origin.

Improvisation played a large role in the program, with accompaniments of the vocal works that had a fluidity impossible to notate. Drones and harmonies that supported the vocal lines were in a constant state of heterophonic flux. The instruments were often more or less performing in unison, but with subtle changes, ornaments and variations in rhythm, creating an ever-changing complexity of texture.

The singers were all excellent in their own ways. Irini Derebei from Greece was engulfed in the music, moving sensuously in rhythm as she sang and also sometimes played castanets. Bulgarian Stoimenka Outchikova-Nedialkova used a very bright, piercing, almost nasal tone, made famous by the Bulgarian women’s choruses that have toured in the West. Marc Mauillon, a tenor from France, had the most conventionally “classical” voice. Toward the end of the program he sang a Byzantine chant from the auditorium's organ loft high above the stage, in darkness, accompanied by a drone on the duduk (an ancient double reed instrument with mellow sound something like the high range of an alto saxophone) and a struck bell. Lior Elmaleh (Israel) used his skills as a cantor at several points in the program improvising extended vocalises. Turkish singer Gürsoy Dinçer had a soft-grained, lovely voice, and he sang his songs simply. He also appeared to be extremely uncomfortable on stage. The singers sometimes sang from memory; other times they used music scores or word sheets. These singers’ ability to bend pitches, ornament, and vary the sound of the voice would put most classical singers to shame.

The instrumentalists played kaval (an end-blown flute associated with shepherds in Balkan countries); qanun (a large zither that gave exotic glissandi as well as playing melodic lines); oud (a pear-sized plucked string instrument resembling a lute); duduk (described above); santur (an Iranian hammered dulcimer with a sweet sound); and various drums. They were all clearly masters of their instruments.

It is a mark of compelling programming and performing that an audience member can look at his watch and realize that almost two-and-a-half hours have passed: Jordi Savall and his Hespèrion XXI singers and instrumentalists created a magic spell. This concert is sure to be one of this season’s highlights for music in Cleveland.