Last night at NYU’s Skirball Center, the Mimesis Ensemble delivered an insightful, often irresistibly fun, historically vivid performance of Spanish-themed works by Ravel as well as two New York premieres by Mohammed Fairouz. Violin soloist Rachel Barton Pine stunned the crowd with her wildfire cadenzas, rapidfire riffage and hair-raising high harmonics throughout the second Fairouz premiere, the violin concerto Al Andalus.
Fairouz’s music is as colorful and vividly lyrical as he is prolific – and he’s very prolific. And he doesn’t’ shy away from political relevance or controversy. This triptych was typical, and it made a tantalizing launching pad for Pine’s virtuoso sorcery. The first movement, Ibn Furnas’ Flight referenced the legendary eighth-century poet and philosopher whose attempt at human flight may be apocryphal, or may have made him the world’s first successful hang-gliding enthusiast. Expressive flutes and aggressively dancing motives leaping up throughout the orchestra contrasted with a muted low resonance, tension and suspense juxtaposed with moments of sheer joy, and a brief bolero. As the music told it, Furnas eventually got to take to the sky, but getting there wasn’t easy.
The second movement, meant to evoke a love poem by the 11th century intellectual Ibn-Ham, made a stark contrast with its slow, spacious, considered minimalist introduction and moody minor-key atmospherics that alluded to Middle Eastern modes more than it actually employed them. The final movement drew on a famous homoerotic poem, jaunty yet suspenseful, full of humor and drollery, from pianist Katie Reimer’s salsa-tinged tumbles, to a snippet of Hava Nagila and a big, pulsing, tango-flavored crescendo. Conductor Laura Jackson did an adrenalized ballet of sorts on the podium, seemingly willing the music to life with her muscles as as much as with her baton.
Fairouz himself conducted the other premiere, his Pax Universalis. In the program notes, he cited the piece’s carefree pageantry as the most lighthearted thing he’s ever written, and he was right about that. Echoes of Afrobeat and bubbly 1930s Hollywood film music livened the theme, inspired by John F. Kennedy’s concept of a universal peace fueled by citizen engagement, as opposed to a truce enforced by a major world power.
Jackson and the group set the tone for the evening with Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnole: she really had them on their toes as they slunk their way suspensefully through the opening nocturne into the series of folk dance-themed variations that followed. This was all about tension and then a payoff, as the music rose and fell, through liltingly rhythmic crescendos and a triumphant conclusion. Then they tackled the Ravel Bolero, which actually isn’t a bolero at all: it’s basically a vamp, a one-chord jam. And it’s a real challenge to play, whether you’re one of the winds or strings who have to pedal the endless rhythmic pulses that push it along, or you’re picking up the melody for a fleeting few seconds. Everyone did their part, seamlessly: the only thing missing was Grace Slick belting, “Feed your head!”