Rotarians abide by a simple but comprehensive ethical code, known as the Four-Way Test: 1) Is it the truth? 2) Is it fair to all concerned? 3) Will it build goodwill and better friendships? 4) Will it be beneficial to all concerned? Along these lines, I have developed my own four-way test to apply to matters artistic (concerts, recordings, gallery exhibits, plays, books, etc.):
- Is it authentic?
- Is it well-performed (painted/acted/written)?
- Is it beautiful?
- (In rare cases) Is it uplifting? Does it improve my life?
After attending two Musical Spectacles organized by a Philadelphia non-profit, al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, and held at prestigious collegiate venues, I must admit that my system is stymied. What should have been exquisite and memorable concerts have ultimately proven to be more perplexing than enlightening. Last year’s flummery by world-renowned musician Marcel Khalife at Haverford College on November 15 (reviewed on this site) was patently inauthentic. Nor was it beautiful or uplifting. There was no question, however, about the quality of the musicianship. I felt it to be wasted, however, on Khalife’s chaotic and disjointed score.
This year’s offering, “Words Adorned,” on December 5, also featured compositions by respected musicians from the Arab world: Kareem Roustom and Kinan Abou-afach, natives of Syria who reside and work on the East Coast. Filling the stage this year at Bryn Mawr College were al-Bustan’s core instrumental ensemble (takht), of which cellist Abou-afach is a member, another female vocal soloist flown in from the Middle East (Palestinian Dalal Abu Amneh), and the customary companion Western vocal ensemble from the Philly environs (last year, it was the Keystone State Boychoir; this year, The Crossing, a superlative professional group under the impeccable direction of Donald Nally). How did this concert stack up?
The audience experienced a visual element of confusion even as the first notes of the Roustom composition, Embroidered Verses, were played, following an excellent instrumental prelude and three muwashshahat. Anyone in the audience expecting a tribute to the sun-drenched Andalusian genre of the muwashshah would have been rudely jolted by the macabre funereal display introducing the performance. In an unusual move, the black-clad singers processed from the back of the house up to the stage, where they joined the takht, also wearing black. The lead vocalist, in contrast, was dressed in all-white, a strange choice of color (as it could symbolize either bridal attire or the garments used in Muslim burial).
Each of the 21st-century compositions were musical and emotional roller coasters, changing abruptly in the course of the sections. The somber visual introduction to Embroidered Verses was enhanced by bizarre aural effects, such as unnerving instrumental slides and extreme vocal harmonies. The soothing overtones in “Love Song” were punctuated with moments of turbulence. The faster tempo and virtuosic instrumental passages in “War Poem” required rigorous execution, with the plucked instruments, ud and kanun, functioning in a delicate and subtle manner to bridge the very demanding string sections.
Of Nights and Solace, the Abou-afach composition, offered only one section out of six which had the sound and feel of Arabic music, invoking the spirit of tarab. The rest of the music volleyed among the soloist, choir, and takht, producing a variety of unsettling effects. Vocals segued into a chaotic instrumental portion in “Forsaken,” featuring rhythms interlocking in a frenzied and tumultuous melee. “Sunrise,” the rhythmic finale to the work, left a sense of unfinished business rather than a decisive conclusion.
The traditional and familiar muwashshahat in the Prelude and Postlude were authentic to the Andalusian period, capturing the spirit of the genre for both the performers and audience. But this portion of the program also points out the discrepancy in tone with the two contemporary compositions, which demonstrated decidedly Western approaches.
This is a tough one; the whole was not quite the sum of its parts, despite the fact that each component of the musical mix was top-notch: the solo vocalist, with her truly beautiful voice; the takht (peerless in its ability to play material of this punishing caliber); and The Crossing, an impressive vocal ensemble whose conductor kept the performance tight. The required expertise and ability were clearly there. So what was missing? Again, the traditional portions of the program as compared to the commissioned works epitomize the dichotomy of East and West, and perhaps also indigenous and classical. It was almost impossible for the musicians to lift their eyes from the scores due to the complexity of the compositions, with their sharp angles and cut-throat corners. There would be no opportunities for improvisation, which is standard in the performance of Arabic music, and certainly no option of responding to audience reaction. Precision performance and slavish attention to the printed score were required, in conformity to the Western classical mode.
The musicians’ demeanor and behavior during the performance of the traditional songs became transformed from tense to relaxed. In the absence of conducting, the instrumentalists (who used no scores) made eye contact with each other, relying on each other for cues and smiling and winking all along. Khoury and El Kotain were in communion throughout the performance… Chami and Abou-afach shared a clear complicity on stage… Even Oddeh, the Nazarene new kid-on-the-block, seemed at ease. The solo vocalist was clearly in her “comfort zone,” producing velvety and flowing sounds and unleashing her theatrical persona–maybe too much of it. The melodramatic arm gestures were at times detrimental to the listening experience.
The contemporary works would have been a disaster in the hands of less-competent personnel on-stage. One could not have dreamed of a more ideal conductor than Nally, who kept it together and adroitly handled the demands of the Arabic and Western components of the evening’s repertoire. The vocalists of The Crossing stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park. Despite the drawback of Abu Amneh’s penchant for histrionics, she managed to navigate the polar-opposite requirements of both the original and 21st-century incarnations of the muwashshah. And the musicians of the takht ensemble are unquestionably a special breed, one-of-a-kind (surely in North America but quite possibly the world) in their capacity to shift gears between Oriental and Western expressions: harmony, micro-tones, playing under a conductor, responding to voices on stage. As a dedicated fan of Arabic music, I am unable to name ANY ensemble comparable to this one.
Finally, It would be remiss not to acknowledge the craftsmanship and artistic vision behind Embroidered Verses and Of Nights and Solace. Roustom and Abou-afach are among the top tier of Arab-heritage composers in North America, with dozens of soundtracks, CDs, and traditional, classical, and jazz compositions to their credit.
But now we get to #3: How did it sound? Was it beautiful? There may be a clear East/West divide in determining this. For those in the audience unaccustomed to micro-tones, sustained listening may have been difficult and disorienting. And what of the original compositions themselves? Several segments can be described as dissonant and anything but easy listening. Yet the larger questions are: How effective was this collision of an indigenous Arabic genre with Western classical culture? Does this fusion ultimately result in dissatisfaction for both the Arab community and the Western members of the audience, pleasing neither? And perhaps the bottom line: Would a concert like this have any chance of succeeding in the Arab world?
Cheers and jeers: Kudos to al-Bustan for the informative and lengthy program booklet, which will be helpful for the audience to read post-concert. The acoustics of the concert hall were marvelous, although the hall’s architecture reinforced the mood of uneasiness at the beginning of Roustom’s composition. It must be mentioned that another odd element of the staging was the gratuitous pre-concert slide show projecting images of al-Andalus along with rehearsal shots onto an ugly screen which distorted the images and created a cheap movie-theatre ambience in the concert hall.
And what of next year? Will the repertoire be mainstream or unique? Populist or elitist? Authentic or hybrid?
Author: Alison Andrews
Alison T. Andrews divides her time between the Eastern Seaboard and the Arabic-speaking world, where she teaches English as a Second Language, often in exchange for music lessons.