Sunday, November 20, 2011

From Passion to Compassion

In last night's Passio-Compassio, the Bach rearrangements by Music Director Vladimir Ivanoff sounded unconvincing to my ears. The string quartet, saxophones, bass clarinet, Arabic nay and qanun, Turkish ney, kanun and kemence, harpsichord, organ and frame drums, playing excerpts from Bach's Passions, sounded like a garage jam session. Bach's music was too strict, too self-contained, to admit foreign influences easily. When the music turned more improvisatory, more open-ended, as in the Syrian Orthodox chants and traditional Turkish songs, the different musical traditions melded into a sparkling stream. The experience taught me the usefulness of open forms in accommodating vastly different worlds: jazz improvisations, Arabic musical ornamentation, mystical refrains.

The Lebanese contralto Fadia el-Hage sang beautifully in the first half of the program. The Syrian chants were intricately embroidered by her warm yet brilliant voice. Particularly memorable was her rendition of Kefnet kmo zavnyn ("My nature took revenge on me"). In the second half Turkish singer Mustafa Dogan Dikmen stole the stage with his expressive performance of what I think was Ya llahi ("Oh Lord") in Ottoman Turkish.

Ali Ufki, the composer of Ya llahi, had a fascinating history. The concert program: "Born in 1610 to a Protestant Polish family (probably in what is now Lviv, Ukraine), this musician and scholar, whose original name was Wojciech Bobowski, had an improbably life. He was taken prisoner at an unknown date by Crimean Tartars and sold to the Ottoman court of Sultan Murad IV on the strength of his musicianship. He later converted to Islam and served as an interpreter of some 16 languages--and as Ali Ufki, he became one of the most prominent composers within the Ottoman empire before his death around 1675."

The Mevlevi dervishes appeared in both parts of the program, in imitation of their four "welcomings" (selamlar): four times, the dervishes greeted each other and the leader (sheik) of the group and started whirling. Their whirling was slow; their union with God was not ecstatic but contemplative. Their tall hats represented the tombstone and their white skirts symbolized the burial shroud for the ego. Casting off their black cloaks represented being reborn into the truth. According to the program, the dervishes are neither dances nor monks. They are real estate agents and merchants in daily life. Some have families. "They meet weekly to practice their ritual. Their concerns are togetherness and good deeds." It was strangely beautiful to gaze on grown men twirling about in long white skirts.

Throughout the performance, verses by Rumi were dimly projected to the back of the stage. I remember best his wish for the Beloved to put his lips on him, so that the mystic could, like a flute, sound out a blast of music.

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