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Safaafir, Present Music Shine at Turner Hall

Classical Review

May. 10, 2010
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The well-attended Present Music (PM) concert last Saturday evening at Turner Hall was a trip to the Middle East, with music by an Israeli composer, an American composer with Turkish ties, and an American-Iraqi. If only peace talks were this civilized and artful.

Betty Olivero’s Six Yiddish Songs and Dances began as a score for a silent film, later adapted as a chamber work for clarinet and string quartet. Clarinetist William Helmers was given the opportunity to do something he has always done well: mournfully moan the instrument, then cut loose in a chattering wail, all with a Yiddish accent. The “songs” ranged from doleful to manic. Olivero writes very effectively and richly, unselfconsciously marrying klezmer style with art music.

Kamran Ince’s Istathenople (a melding of Istanbul and Constantinople) was commissioned by PM and premiered in 2003. For eight players plus a female voice, without words and treated instrumentally, the piece is built on short motivic phrases, like most of Ince’s music. Pensive contemplation suddenly bursts forward with roaring aggression. Of the many Ince pieces I have encountered, this is one of his best, sustaining interest throughout with dramatic contrasts. Music such as Istathenople, with so much detailed texture and layers, is greatly helped by the clearer and warmer acoustics of Turner Hall when compared to other PM venues of the past.

Amir ElSaffar, born to an Iraqi father and American mother, was a jazz trumpeter before becoming thoroughly interested and trained in maqam, the classical music tradition in Iraq. Playing the santoor (a hammered dulcimer), he was joined by Dena ElSaffar on djoze (a bowed spike fiddle) and Tim Moore on the dumbek (a goblet drum). The trio, Safaafir, first presented a traditional maqam, lengthy and mesmerizing, its vocal line a melisma-filled ramble through poetic reflection and exuberant pleading. Amir ElSaffar sang as expertly as he played. This trio is an amazing combination of musicians. ElSaffar’s original compositions, mixing jazz and maqam style, were exotic and seductive, featuring him in elegant and expressive trumpet solos. For the final selections PM musicians joined the trio to continue the hypnotic spell.


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