In a chat with the audience after their sold-out show at Symphony Space last night, clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and cellist Kinan Abou-Afach explained that their great childhood ambition had been to busk in the Istanbul subway, since their Damascus hometown didn’t have one. It was a humbling revelation from two extraordinary musicians whose work defies category – and has still not been been performed in a duo arrangement on an train platform anywhere in Turkey.
Azmeh also revealed that in the wake of the 2011 Syrian revolution, he found himself so overwhelmed that he didn’t write any music for a full year. Since then, the Yo-Yo Ma collaborator has made up for lost time: just in this past year alone, this blog has caught him playing lively Middle Eastern flavored jazz, intricately conversational improvised music and ominous, war-themed soundscapes. This concert was the album release show for his latest cycle, Songs for Days to Come, commissioned by pianist Lenore Davis, impresario of the popular Upper West Side St. Urban concert and literary salon series. She and Azmeh’s fellow Damascus expat, soprano Dima Orsho, filled out the quartet to perform the raptly brooding, sometimes harrowing five-part suite in its entirety. Each song was preceded by the recorded voice of each of the five expat Syrian poets whose original Arabic words Azmeh had set to music.
The news that the last remaining hospital in the beseiged city of Aleppo had been destroyed in a bombing raid may have fueled the musicians’ steely resolve and acute sense of anguish. The poems – by Lukman Derky, Mohammad Abou-Laban, Hazem Al-Azmeh, Liwaa Yazji and Adnan Odeh – speak of abandonment by god (or sheer disbelief), allude to wartime horrors, solitude, alienation and loss. The most gripping of all, by Odeh, was a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, where the narrative itself is blown to bits. It was the one moment during the concert where Azmeh went to the deep well of classical Arabic maqamat for gracefully plaintive Levantine melody.
Beyond that, tensely still, sustained passages rose to angst-fueled codas and then returned groundward. Davis played Azmeh’s artful, elegaic bell-tone, Mompou-esque motives and muted inside-the-piano accents with a wounded, resonant restraint matched by rapidfire, circular lines. Likewise, Orsho moved effortlessly between a muted calm – most vividly during one of the early numbers, evoking a Syrian singer killed by a knife to the throat – and soaring operatics. Azmeh’s clarinet alternated between rippling, uneasy balletesque passages and a mournful sustain while Abou-Afach anchored the music in austere washes of sound. Like the rest of Azmeh’s work, it’s informed by but hardly limited to a Syrian idiom. That there was such an engaged, multicultural audience assembled to witness this concert, at a time in New York when live music is often no more than a meme for grubbing for status, speaks well for the people of this city.