Pianists and violinists are the prime donne of classical music so where does that leave Damascus, Syria-born clarinetist Kinan Azmeh who makes his instrument sing with his own breath? One doesn’t think of clarinetists as having big careers but the New York-based Azmeh is much in demand and seems to be running all over the world every day so the Bay Area was lucky to have him when he and his New York-based City Band stopped here on their West Coast tour this winter. Travel can be brutal but these four musicians — which include Kyle Sanna, acoustic guitar; Josh Myer, double bass; and John Hadfield, percussion — seemed utterly relaxed and on fire, and isn’t that what music is supposed to be and do? I’ve been on a Prokofiev kick lately and the late great Russian composer and pianist’s music never fails to calm and excite, and Azmeh and company with Persian vocalist Sepideh Vahidi did that here to an almost packed house which has superb sound and comfy sight lines.
Everyone seems to want to do fusion these days but Azmeh, who plays with ensembles large and small from almost everywhere, seems to have made his personal style what he hears inside him “without quotes.” The ancient maqamat or modes/scales of Arabic music, which is one of the greatest and least familiar world traditions, are embedded in his voice and that’s ironic because he came late to his own culture’s music after being “bred” in our Western type, though of course he heard Syria’s music all around him growing up in Damascus. But his opening piece, which grew from an almost fragmentary or remembered arabesque on his solo clarinet told the audience that they were about to go into another world, and without the slightest hint of a gimmick. “Haunting”, “soulful ” — the suburban- focused New York Times’ description — “spellbinding ” — The New Yorker — are some of the adjectives which have been used to describe it –though I think “magnetic” is closer to the mark because Azmeh’s music magnetizes the air around it as it draws the audience in. He and his all-American City Band cohorts draw from the wells of their own diverse backgrounds and experience to make something not limited by their own tastes, and it helps that they’ve worked as a unit since 2006 which is a huge chunk of time when everybody seems to want to be famous in less than a nanosecond.
Azmeh always plays some of his hits and he did two here from the three pieces which make up his 2007 “Suite for Improvisor and Orchestra” — “November 22nd ” which remembers his first Thanksgiving dinner in Boston which is infused with a very acute sense of wanting to be wanted in his new American home — and “Wedding” whose wild assymmetric rhythms evoke the chaotic joy of a country wedding in Syria where everyone picks up anything they want to play on or with, and “Wedding ” brought down the house as usual. This music is notated but allows for ad lib playing within a tightly conceived duration which is almost always adhered to though the likeness between performances as sound tends to be wide. This was the most exciting and tight version I’ve heard live, with Sepideh Vahidi contributing a darker but rhythmically exact version than the ones I’ve heard from Azmeh’s damascene soprano friend Dima Orsho www.dimaorsho.com who has been with his group Azmeh Hewar ( Dialogue ) for years. But the real revelation here was how color can change and adjust what we hear, and the additions of Sana on acoustic guitar and Hadfield on drum kit which included both Arabic dumbek ( a globe drum ) and daf ( a drum played much like a cymbal ), and Myer on a refulgent bass gave the music heightened color and force — the Arab word for it is “tarab” which roughly translates as ecstasy — and there were countless moments of that here in this brisk but never too brisk intermissionless tour of Azmeh and company’s signature works. The audience seemed to entirely forget the encroach of that spectre — time — and rose in a thunderous and well deserved standing ovation for the five superlative artists here, and our supposed Persian enemies whose Diaspora foundation was a prime supporter, turned out in far larger numbers than our homegrown American friends.
Azmeh has a just out recorded in Berlin album “Uneven Sky” www.youtube.com.
All of the performances are pitch perfect, and more importantly heartfelt, with three clarinet concertos written expressly for Azmeh.
That by born in Aleppo ( Halep ) Syria composer Dia Succari ( 1938-2010 ) which has suffered most from the over half -century planned “civil war ” which began in Syria in 2011 was written for him in 2005-06, and it’s curiously the most unfashionable yet the most deeply evocative piece here, perhaps because Succari left home for further schooling in France though Syria never left him.
c 2019 MICHAEL MCDONAGH