MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Kinan Azmeh’s Ambitious, Wondrous New Double Album: Uneven Sky

When he has time to recharge is a well-kept secret, but soon after introducing his impressive Clarinet Concerto at Seattle Symphony in February, the Syrian clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh released Uneven Sky, an ambitious and far-ranging double album he recorded with the Berlin-based Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester — a city where Azmeh is especially loved, making frequent appearances with his various musical partners at the Pierre Boulez Saal in the center of the city. Manuel Nawri is the conductor.

What a cornucopia this is. The first CD is filled with three of Azmeh’s own compositions. He also plays the solo clarinet parts here, kicking off with a signature piece, Suite for Improvisor and Orchestra from 2008. It’s a signature piece not only because of the mesmerizing personality and virtuosity this artist radiates with his instrument, but also because it exemplifies the centrality of improvisational creativity in Azmeh’s philosophy. In his own words, he “tries to blur the lines between the composed and improvised,” which comes from “my belief that the best written music is the one that sounds spontaneous and improvised, and the best improvisation is the one that sounds structured and composed.”

He continues with the sublime Ibn Arabi Suite, inspired by the great medieval Arab Muslim mystic, philosopher, and poet who traveled widely and reached the end of his life in Azmeh’s native city of Damascus. It was commissioned and premiered by the Osnabrück Symphony in 2013. He partners here with fellow Syrian Dima Orsho, a soprano who, like Azmeh, completed her musical education in the U.S. Azmeh explains that the Suite was “inspired by a school of thought in which free thinking is sacred as much as the religious beliefs. [It] reflects a journey from the rather minimalist opening Prelude through the reflective middle movement Recitation and ending with what can only be described as an obsessive ritualistic dance in the concluding Postlude.”

The third composition, The Fence, the Rooftop and the Distant Sea, is a duo Azmeh wrote for himself and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, which they introduced at the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie in 2017. In the composer’s words: “A fence, a rooftop, and the distant sea were all present facing my desk while I finished the piece in Beirut in December 2016. These elements were a reminder of how near my hometown of Damascus was, yet how far it seemed after being away for five years. The piece is about the random memories of individuals, more precisely about two characters searching for memories from home…”

On the second CD, Azmeh appears as the soloist in three concertos written specifically for him, each by a different Syrian composer whom he admires. First comes Adrift on the Wine-Dark Sea by Kareem Roustom (born 1971), who, like Azmeh, resettled in the U.S. Roustom provides this commentary: “”The clarinet plays the role of Odysseus/refugee and the orchestra the role of the sea and all the hurdles that stand in the way of home/refuge … [concluding with what] could be a peaceful place of refuge or … an afterlife. It is up to the listener to decide the fate of Odysseus/refugee.”

Zaid Jabri (born 1975), who was mentored by Krzysztof Penderecki and is now based in Norway, wrote his Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra on the request of Azmeh, who decided to introduce a new work with the Syrian National Orchestra on the occasion of the opening of the new opera house in Damascus in happier times in 2004. The score was considered “too contemporary,” however, such that only a part of it was played at the opening. This recording offers the entire, nearly half-hour work unadulterated.

Closing the second CD is the work from an earlier generation of Syrian composers: Suite for Clarinet and Orchestra (“Paroles”) by Dia Succari (1938-2010). Succari moved on to Paris, studying with Messiaen and himself remaining mostly active in France. Explains Ara Guzelimian of the Juilliard School: “[Succari] devoted himself to a deep study of the maqam, the system of melodic modes which is the basis of composition and improvisation in traditional Arabic music. Messiaen himself noted in a letter that Succari’s music is based on ‘rhythms and modes of Arab character’ while never falling into the trap of imitating folkloric music. That subtle balance is at the heart of Succari’s atmospheric Paroles (2005/06) for clarinet and orchestra, which filters its Arabic references through an unmistakably French orchestral sonority and sensibility, much as Debussy and Ravel evoked Iberia in an earlier generation.”

Filed under: clarinet, Kinan Azmeh, new music

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