During a question-and-answer session following the Mallarmé Chamber Players' latest concert, composer Eitan Steinberg succinctly and eloquently captured the essence of the afternoon's music by saying that cultures are like the oceans – one flows into the other. Just as you cannot actually discern where the Pacific Ocean ends and the Indian Ocean begins, the cultures of this globe blend, assimilate, and share at least some aspects of those near and far, geographically.
This post-concert discussion served as a window into the process and philosophy of the three composers represented on another gem in the long history of remarkably creative and unique presentations by the Mallarmé Chamber Players. Several years in the making, this program, titled "Middle Eastern Delight" combined world-renowned singer/actress Etty Ben-Zaken with many familiar musicians in a beautiful synthesis of western and middle-eastern musical, literary, and performance practices. It is hard to avoid the worn-out cliché that if only those at war could join in a celebration of their similarities and enjoy their diversity, maybe there would not be so much violence and so many endless disputes. Simplistic and trite it may be, but that does not negate the axiom's truth.
The March 26 program began with a demonstration of the universality of a pear-shaped wooden box with strings stretched across the top. Over the past year in the Triangle we have had the opportunity to hear masters play the Chinese pipa, the western European lute, and now the Arabic oud. From the back, the oud looks pretty much like the lute – a ribbed oval back, relatively short neck, and angled peg box. Multi-instrumentalist and composer Nagi Hilal took the stage, picked up the oud and proceeded to dazzle the audience with his virtuosity and intensity. Even those who are not particularly sophisticated, musically, can certainly identify middle-eastern or Arabic sounds when they hear them. This is because of the modal, monophonic character that also employs intervals smaller than the semi-tone of western music. Unlike the other similar instruments mentioned above, the oud is closer to western bowed instruments in that it has no frets – this facilitates its ability to play intervals tighter than a half-step. Hilal played several selections demonstrating the sound and technique of this lovely instrument. It has a much more penetrating and resonant sound than the lute, its western predecessor. The musician uses only his thumb in playing the almost exclusively single-line pieces, using the index finger only for occasional chordal strums. In addition to his fluid and virtuosic playing, Hilal also sang in one number, eliciting a feeling both familiar and alien to our mostly western ears.
Compositions for cello and flute are not that prevalent even in the standard western musical repertoire, so the palette of possibilities is endless for such a combination. Composer Reza Vali's Folk Songs #9 is the ninth set of an ongoing cycle of Persian folksongs written since 1978. UNC School of Music faculty members Brooks de Wetter-Smith, flutes, and Brent Wissick, cello, took us on a magical, musical journey. Various flutes were used, and the technique of singing into the instrument to give the sound of multiple tones coming out of the instrument was expertly employed. This lent an eerie, other-worldly effect that you usually don't hear in a western composition. In addition to his usual superb cello playing, Wissick had the chance to do something which most cellists never even contemplate – a kind of vocal scatting while playing. He displayed a lovely, rich voice singing along with a very rhythmically complex cello line. He then moved on to showcase his glass-playing abilities as he punctuated a beautifully controlled flute solo with pitches from different-sized glasses. This inventive work clearly showed that there will always be new and engaging ways to use traditional instruments.
The second half of the program was taken up with an emotionally riveting interpretation of the traditional Stabat Mater, whose text and concept has been used for centuries by most of the great composers. Composed in 2004 by Eitan Steinberg, this version had the additional suffix of "A Human Prayer" as its title. The difference here is that the central idea of Mary's pain and suffering during the crucifixion of Jesus has been transferred to the millions of mothers throughout history who have also endured the deaths of their sons (and, more recently, daughters) in senseless wars. The eight sections of text are a mixture of Arabic, Hebrew, and English, and Etty Ben-Zaken sang and/or recited in each language. This was a powerful condemnation of arrogant leaders, brutal violence, and stupid pride – its application to current events is obvious. Accompanied by a string quartet consisting of Richard Luby and Jacqueline Saed, violins, Yoram Youngerman, viola, and Brent Wissick, cello, the music for the most part was an intricate layer of sustained or changing harmonies that complemented the text. The highlight of the work was the closing section, "Forgiveness Songs" sung in English, whose final stanza was the heartfelt plea:
"Come, my friends, let's pluck our strings
And may our songs be heard by kings.
May this song heal the wounds of war,
And may love dwell in our core."