Amici Ensemble’s LEVANT by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, November 23, 2010, CBC Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto

This exhilarating program of music by 20th Century composers was inspired by the notion of ‘Levant’, i.e. ‘land of the rising sun’, which in France around 1497 indicated the Balkans and the Middle East. This afternoon, ‘Levant’ indicated music based on Arabic scales that alter the flats and sharps we are used to in Western European music, giving Balkan, Middle Eastern, Klezmer and Spanish Gypsy music—all derived in part from Arabic roots—a distinctive exotic flavour.

Marko Tajcevic’s Seven Balkan Dances for clarinet, cello, and piano is an elegant gallery of miniatures. In the first one, behind the drone of the cello (David Hetherington) we hear the jingle of ankle-bells in the trilling of the piano (Serouj Kradjian) and clarinet (Joaquin Valdepeñas). The second dance is more vigorous and dramatic, like Bartok’s “Bear Dance,” with a charming touch of Klezmer in the clarinet part. The third has changing time signatures and sounds like the querulous dialogue of complaining lovers. The fourth is mournful, the cello singing a dirge to a lonely piano. The fifth is a quick-step celebration, the sixth is funny—like a sad clown, and the seventh is a wild, whirling march.

Ben Bowman sat in for Gayaneh Tchebodarian’s Trio for violin, cello and piano.  This female Armenian composer is known for her dramatic but melancholy style, and true to form, this piece opens with a dancing piano melody at odds with the percussive and bitter-sweet voices of the other instruments. A passage recalling Alexander Borodin’s theme from the second movement of his String Quartet in D (popularized as “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads” in the musical Kismet) broadens the emotional flow in the direction of romance, and the climax of the work is wild.

This same trio of musicians performed Rabin Abu Khalil’s darkly passionate Iberian tango-flavoured Arabian Waltzrio, a lively, well-structured work in veiled 3/4 time. Following that, Serouj Kradjian perfomed solo the eponymous highlight of the concert, Osvaldo Golijov’s Levante, a vaguely deconstructed suite of Cuban rhythms that morphs into a tango. There is more weird humour in the fact that Golijov arranged this piano work from a chorus he’d written for his Requiem,The Passion of St. Mark, introducing the scene of the Last Supper. Serouj’s masterful control of the dancing change-ups of tempo and mood suggested that ‘The’ Supper was quite a party where possibly in a corner of the room you might see Xavier Cugat cupping Pepito his chihuahua.

The second half of the concert offered more traditional works, all superbly played, including Alexander Glazunov’s Oriental Reverie for clarinet and string quartet. This is a tightly textured fabric of sound as if woven of linen and wool embroidered with silk that dissolves into the transparency of silence after a thrilling viola solo by Steven Dann. We also enjoyed Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34 for clarinet, string quartet & piano, which featured Klezmer themes and some very warm clarinet work by Valdepeñas.

One of the more substantial and interesting works was the Trio for violin, cello and piano (1975) by the recently deceased Syrian composer Solhi Al-Wadi. The first movement is memorable for the quirky ostinato rhythm behind a theme that references Shostakovich’s signature 8th String Quartet. The slow movement is dissonant and mournful—the strings buzz like an autumnal fly dying over piano chords that pound out doom like shutters in the wind. After a lively dissonant dance, the mournful complaint reappears in the keening strings, fixing the attention and allowing it to fade away into a kind of peace.

The peaceful aspect of the afternoon’s musical offering was surely highlighted by three of the Sacred Dances for solo piano attributed to the Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff. The phrases of the first one are arranged in balanced pairs that move in a stately gait suggesting a narrative dialogue that develops like a border ballad—by incremental repetition. The second is hushed with bright highlights as Kradjian’s trilling right hand ripples over an hypnotic ostinato. The third sends a tender, penetrating energy through the mind, arouses a sense of cheefulness, and evokes a definitive silence. Mr. Kradjian for his part approached the material respectfully, displaying a technique that seemed the very definition of gentle dynamics.

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