Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Divan Rites / Alice Shields

On April 28, 2011 the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York, an agency of the Republic of Austria, presented West-Eastern Divan in their chamber concert series. The sold-out concert featured violinist Frank Stadler, pianist Jun Kanno, and oud player and composer Hossam Mahmoud.

This superb concert at the Austrian Cultural Forum was a model of how to present classical works from different world traditions.

The three performers in their ethnic diversity reflect the cross-fertilization of the classical traditions of East and West. Violinist Frank Stadler, of European heritage, lives in Salzburg, is founder of the Stadler Quartet, and leads the Austrian Ensemble for Contemporary Music and the Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg. Pianist Jun Kanno, of Japanese heritage, now lives in Paris, and has performed with the Munich Symphony, Chamber Orchestra of Berlin, Japan Philharmonic, Vienna String Quartet, and the Mozart Quartet of Salzburg. Oud player and composer Hossam Mahmoud, of Eqyptian heritage, now lives in Salzburg, and is a performer and composer focused on promoting dialog between music of different cultures. Born in Cairo, Mahmoud studied Middle Eastern music, and then Western composition in Graz and Salzburg. His compositions have been performed at stART2003 in Salzburg, Autumn festival in Paris and the Salzburg Biennale, and his stage works at the opera houses of Cairo and Alexandria.

The venue for this intercultural concert was the tall, thin modern building of the Austrian Cultural Council, a 30,000-square-foot structure of concrete, glass, and steel off 5th Avenue in midtown Manhattan. The slightly elevated performance space, large enough to accomodate a piano quartet, is within 6 feet of the audience in this wood-lined jewel box of a theater.

Slow and meditative, the Hossam Mahmoud's Taq'sim, for solo oud, uses some melodic material from the Arabic classical Maqam patterns. Listening to this unhurried composition, which seems to dwell on the moment that has just past instead of the moment that is to come, it felt as if we had just stepped into a cool, shady courtyard, in which we could think for moment and look inward. We were held by the calm, descending melodic patterns, which seemed as egoless as leaves blown by a gentle breeze across our courtyard. This was satisfying, without accumulation or development or crescendo, simply dwelling in timelessness, unstructured, modest, in-dwelling.

And then the next piece began: we were immersed once again in highly structured time and now piercing dissonances, in the world premiere of Herbert Grassl’s Piece for Piano and Violin. Grassl’s work has muscular, clearly-shaped phrases and interchanges between piano and violin, and intense double-stop dissonances in the violin. Razor-sharp melodic lines and distinct rhythmic gestures culminate in excruciating but strangely pleasureable dissonances, played with impressive precision by Mr. Stadler. Some of the phrases repeated, so that the painful beauty of the dissonances could be enjoyed once more. The work was exciting in its aural exactness and crystalline form, and in an abstracted, distant way, expressed suffering.

Next came Debussy’s Sonata for Piano and Violin, where deeply pleasurable subtleties of fine ensemble playing were exchanged between the instruments, along with dramatic entrances and sharp timing and crescendos. But in its melodic and harmonic twists, the Debussy reflected the growing spiritual tortures of the ensuing century -- spiritual and musical twists that we had also just caught glimpses of in the Mahmoud and Grassl works.

Kanno’s performed Messiaen’s Regard de l’Etoile and Regard de l’Esprit de joie masterfully, presenting with seeming ease the densities, delicacies and enormous landscapes of these massive, virtuosic pieces. The works resonated through the hall with great effect and enjoyment on the part of the audience. Kanno made the keyboard resonate as if an enormous harp, easily strummed.

In Traditional Arabic Piece for Violin and Oud, Mahmoud and Stadler sat, intently leaning forward, the latter preparing to play with the violin lower on his arm in the Middle Eastern fashion. Mahmoud began the Maqam melodies on the oud; Stadler echoed, senza vibrato, in low range. The two often alternated or overlapped, playing descending melodic fragments with occasional ornaments. After the thunder of the Messiaen, we had again stepped into a quiet courtyard, and this time seemed to be listening to a quiet conversation between two people, a conversation in which no change or conclusion was expected or desired. One performer would give a fragment of a melody, descending, and then the other would imitate it. Here there was no desire to use repetition to contain emotion or to create form within a larger work. In this, it seemed repetition was being used between two different players as if it were a way of perhaps not being alone: you could hear someone “say” what you had just said, so you knew somebody was out there. Other people exist, and they sound like you; they are quite like you, and you know it because they play very similar things, not very different from yours.

Kanno came onstage to join Stadler and Mahmoud for the final work, the world premiere of Mahmoud’s Piece for Violin, Piano, and Oud, dedicated to those who lost their lives in Tahrir Square. The mood was quite different than in the previous, traditional composition. Although melodic elements of the Maqam were were still audible, the piece did not dwell in introspective solitude as in the earlier Taq’im, nor was it an imitative dialog in a quiet courtyard. Now, with the piano and violin and oud, it seemed a synthesis. Within a developmental structure, there were bursts of intense feeling and activity, with structured differences between the musical material played by each instrument, and clusters of density contrasting with brief solo lines. There were rises and falls in pitch and intensity, with particularly beautiful moments in which a whirling fast series of notes in the piano would meld with fast patterns in the violin and oud. Neither Western, nor Arabic in sound or structure, this moving work carried us beyond into sorrow and love for those who have perished in the cause of justice and freedom.

This was a concert not to be missed.