Absent Islamic Composers Increase an Evening’s Impact

United StatesUnited States Mofakham, Jabri, Yazdani, Shirazi, Dakouri: Friends of MATA / Carl Christian Bettendorf (conductor), DiMenna Center for Classical Music, New York City. 8.7.2017. (DS)

Idin Samimi Mofakham – Hommage a’Abolhasan Saba (NY premiere)
Zaid Jabri – Beati Pacifici / In Memoriam Rachel Corrie
Arash Yazdani – Aphorism (US premiere)
Aida Shirazi – Lullaby for Shattered Angels (US premiere)
Shergo Dakouri – Beyati (US premiere)

At this MATA concert, titled New Music from the Islamic World: The Tyranny of Separation, the composers couldn’t be there to speak about their influences or bow after their performances, as is usually the custom at new music offerings. For a few, this was merely due to being located on the West Coast or somewhere in Europe.

But for others, their absence was courtesy of the Trump travel ban, or unavoidable entrapment in an ISIS war-torn region. Their music did arrive, however, since censorship of art has yet to be enforced on this side of the Atlantic. Inside the wood-paneled oasis of the DiMenna Center in midtown Manhattan, one composer dialed in via Skype to talk to the audience from California, and another sent a pre-recorded video from Syria. MATA deserves kudos, making it work, because exchanging cultures and collaborating as musicians doesn’t – and mustn’t – stop when the world goes into self-induced lockdown.

The musical messengers were Friends of MATA (FOM), successfully tackling interpretations without much guidance from the composers, or first-hand experience of the regions that produced them. Most compositions used a combination of Middle Eastern modes and Western tonalities, but required individual attention to their mood and message. With poignant intensity, soprano Sharon Harms and pianist Isabelle O’Connell delivered Beati Pacifici / In Memoriam Rachel Corrie, a woeful, moving elegy written by Zaid Jabri, in memory of a ten-year-old girl activist who was killed on the Gaza Strip. The effect was one of time captured, like an object, hovering as a memory or a spirit so powerful that untimely death could not erase its meaning.

In Beyati by Kurdish composer Shergo Dakouri, the music clashes and reconnects with a combination of Kurdish and Western harmonies, framing a commemoration of troubles and joyful memories of the war-torn North Syrian region, Jazira, which Dakouri is active in working to rebuild. Conductor Carl Christian Bettendorf led the full ensemble in a thoughtful interpretation that honored the composer’s delicate structure and some distinctive solos – of note was Michelle Farah on English horn. The MATA musicians triumphed in transporting a fully sensory and imaginative experience – evoking marketplace bustle to peaceful prayer – into a concert hall far from the source material.

Iranian Aida Shirazi studies in California and, as she noted in a mid-concert Skype interview, is awaiting permission for her father to visit from Iran; she is in good spirits, even with the low probability of the U.S. government granting him entrance. Lullaby for Shattered Angels (for viola, harp, and flute) had fluidity in the viola/flute partnership, punctuated by a stunning harp part, done with eloquence by Ashley Jackson. Commemorating Kurdish culture, Shirazi’s piece crosses over several nations, as well as minority groups often targeted in the region.

Two works that focused less on contemporary issues showed the depth of compositions coming out of the Middle East. Aphorism for full ensemble by Arash Yazdani takes various texts as inspiration – from the Koran to the Tao Te Ching – and produced the night’s most avant-garde work, evoking Cage’s prepared piano and homages to silence. Idin Samimi Mofakham’s Hommage a’Abolhasan Saba pays tribute to the first teacher of Western violin in 19th-century Persia. Mofakham intriguingly experiments with instruments tuned to Saba’s tuning practices, which were meant to marry the violin with Persian performance styles and modalities.

I think I can speak for everyone when I write that emotions in all the works were felt deeply. While the sorrow stood out, quite understandably, the ability to express these raw and painful feelings is a resilient attribute of Middle Eastern cultures. There is always a parallel ability to keep up hope, maintain memory, and move forward.

Daniele Sahr

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