Silkroad Ensemble plays Noe Music. Photo: Brian Smeets.

Noe Music Festival 2024

Silk Road Ensemble members and Brentano Quartet perform in San Francisco

Written by:
Michael McDonagh
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You don’t have to be an alarmist to feel that things in 2024 are dangerously out of whack. And if this is true, how can we square the disconnect between our private and public worlds? Is art a barometer or a mirror and /or a refuge from societal and personal collapse? And if it’s both, where does that leave us? Shell shocked, or ready to grapple with things as they really are like the Zionist entity’s horrific assault on the people of Gaza and the West Bank — yet another iteration of is Eretz Israel ( Greater Israel Project ) who are being given arms, money, and diplomatic cover by America, and America’s European vassal states. These are just a few of the questions which preoccupied me before, during, and after this New York-based clarinet- cello – percussion trio arrived in San Francisco in a  break between a series of brutal rain storms, which seemed to have become as regular, dramatic, and unpredictable as just about everything else in this pivotal election year. But the real news here was that these three musicians — Syrian clarinetist-composer www.kinanazmeh.com; percussionist-composer www.harukafujjii.com from Japan; and cellist-composer www.karenouzounian.com, born to Armenian parents in Canada, delivered the goods.

Azmeh’s “Syrian Imaginary Dances “(2018), is a portrait of the ancient Syrian cities of Deir-Ezzor, where T.E Lawrence was tortured; and Daraa –where the Syrian “Civil” war, or “Uprising”–take your pick — began in 2011– www.globalresearch.ca. His writing here was sinuous, sensuous, and evocative. It also managed to integrate Levantine harmonic and melodic practice to produce a state of being, which in Arabic is called ” tarab “, or  “ecstasy “, which Azmeh realized with his two superb musical partners. Opening a concert with something as pacific as this is always a challenge, and this performance moved the audience, and isn’t that what any sincere listener expects, even in our relentlessly distracted time, when showing up in a real physical space for music — “could we do a Zoom call because I’m really busy ? ” — seems almost actively discouraged in America?       

Ouzounian exploited the range of sonorties that the cello is capable of conjuring in her “Suite of Armenian Dreams ” with great imagination and peerless technique. And I think we need to remember that the Armenian people seem to have survived just about every horror inflicted on them by the Turks during its Genocide / Holocaust (1915-1923) which served as a model for the one that Hitler perpetrated against the Jewish people and anyone whom he saw as “Untermenschen ” in World War II, which meant just about everybody who opposed the policies of his Reich. And let’s not forget that Armenia has given us composers like Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978 ) who was a big star in Soviet Russia, and Ouzounian is a star in our current new music world. Her “Some Games Played Over Thousands of Miles “(2020), co-composed with Fujii, came off — if that’s the word — as a piece which wanted us to like it for the nobility ? of its intentions, rather than what the audience actually heard, which in this case sounded like a series of half-baked ideas / gestures waiting for a big reveal which never arrived, Still one had to admire the trio’s valiant attempts to bring it to life. Fujii’s three-part solo piece “Divisions” (2017), for marimba and mixed percussion, was however intelligently made, purposive, and its sounds made musical — i.e compositional, and structural — sense, and her performance of Takatsugu Muramatsu’s 2006 “Land ” was equally effective, and evocative.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Azmeh’s 2016 “The Fence, The Rooftop, and The Distant Sea ” which he wrote for himself, and recorded with the renowned and extremely popular cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who’s also a founder of the Silk Road Ensemble, because it sounded like a suite of 5 pieces which lacked a cohesive through line, which is one of the liabilities of the form, even in Bach. Azmeh, and Ouzoonian, however, gave it their all. and its effect / affect was buoyed by the imaginary story of the adventures of two friends which the clarinetist provided in his spoken comments before its performance, and it’s nice that several other performers have been taking it up, and putting their own musical stamps on it, and several of completely different takes are available online. The afternoon concluded with Azmeh and company, and violinist Owen Dalby and violist Meena Bhasin’s performance of Azmeh’s 2005 “Wedding” which brought down the house, though it’s even better when the whole Silk Road Ensemble is cooking with their ornamented extended solos which follow its opening major / minor chords — the “Melody ” in the top — soprano –line of its first nine bars is marked ” X 4 ” vs the jumping figuration in the bass “Rhythm ” line.The real news here however wasn’t the diversity card that the ensemble played throughout but Azmeh’s performance of his 2003 solo “Prayer ( Tribute to Edward Said )” written to remember his late Palestinian writer friend Edward Said, who taught at New York’s Columbia for many years, and its naked, keening sadness seemed to encapsulate the clarinetist’s grief at losing him, and it couldn’t help but mirror the continuing Gaza and West Bank horrors going on now.

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Brentano String Quartet www.brentanostringquartet.comwww.noemusic.org San Francisco CA 18 February 2024 — Mark Steinberg — violin 1; Berena Canin — violin 2; Misha Amory — viola; Nina Lee — cello.

The Musical World of Bartok’s Quartet No. 5

The academy’s reliance on the perception of a general or musically sophisticated audience’s perception of what they hear and their collusion with managements’ — i.e publicists —  efforts to control that perception has been a moot issue since my late composer-critic friend www.virgilthomson.org railed against it as the Music Appreciation Racket in the pages of The New York Herald Tribune. Or, as the late and perhaps equally controversial film critic Paulin Kael once put iit– “Critics review the intention ” not what they’re about to see. And here was the Yale School of Music-based Brentano Quartet making its debut at Noe Music with a first half that could have been a menu instead of a real meal, or a tutorial instead of a complete listening experience. Their excerpts from the works of canonic composers as various as Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Purcell, and the twentieth century Italian composer Luciano Berio, whom we hear infrequently today, surveyed the musical forms and devices that Bartok exploited in his penultimate string quartet– the 1934 # 5 Sz.102. The pedagogical examples in this half hour intro were both specific and telling, and the Brentano’s subsequent performance of the Fifth clarified the technical and emotional drive of its moving parts, with arresting moments in loud, and soft passages, like the two slow “night music” movements, which are also a Bartok specialty in some of his symphonic works like the 1936  “Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta” “Serious” music has many facets and uses,. It can even be  entertaining because it has always been able to go on all these separate tracks. The playing here was fleet, pristine, and powerful, Music has always been about listening and the quartet’s active listening held its audience captive. Their performance reminded me of how the Kronos Quartet’s played all of the Bartok quartets here in San Francisco’s Green Room when they were resident in the academy — at Oakland’s Mills College ? —  scant eons ago. The Brentano showed that Bartok hasn’t been sidelined in music history and performance history. But how could he be when everything he wrote is new when it’s performed as lovingly and vividly as it was here?

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