San Antonio — You never know what to expect at a concert presented by Musical Bridges Around the World. The San Antonio organization takes their name seriously and brings performers that you will not hear elsewhere, even in the major cities. Such was the case with the two concerts that brought the International Festival to a close the first weekend in March. The St. Petersburg String Quartet played a concert by themselves on Sunday afternoon but, on Saturday evening, they were joined by two virtuoso Indian musicians who joined with them to perform a fascinating combination of Indian, Middle Eastern and Western music. Clarinetist Kinan Azmeh was the performer and composer behind the exotic fusion. He was joined by tablaist Sandeep Das.
We all know about the clarinet, but most of us are less familiar with the tabla, which is widely used in Hindustani classical music. It vaguely resembles a pair of bongo drums, and is also a pair of drums of different sizes. Likewise, the tabla is played with the hands, but it is really a far more versatile instrument in that it is more capable of approximating pitches and can even create proto-language vowel sounds.
Technically, the tabla is a membranophone; an instrument that produces its sound by way of a stretched membrane and achieves pitches by tightening or loosening the membrane. One member of the family, that is familiar to modern-day audiences, is the timpani, which manipulates the membrane with a foot pedal. On the tabla, this is done by pressing the membrane with parts of the hand (mostly the heel).
Das turned in a marvelously intriguing performance on this highly colorful percussion instrument. Frequently, you found yourself wondering how he created one original effect after another and it was his rhythmic underpinning that gave all of the music in which he played its forward thrust.
The quartet played some selections by themselves. They played the Andante Cantabile from Tchaikovsky’s first string quartet (Op.11). The most interesting piece that they played was Sulkhan Tsintsadze’s Five Jewish Songs for string quartet. He was a Georgian composer who lived from 1925 to 1991. His music roughly falls into a space between Shostakovich and Scriabin and is marked by his use of Russian and Georgian folk tunes.
However, it was the music written and performed by Azmeh that was completely captivating. The music was full of cross rhythms and you could see the concentration in the string quartet that these difficult rhythms required. Taking a page from jazz, other passages were structured aleatoric cadenzas (improvised on a set of harmonic indicators). When Azmeh would arrive at one of the improvisation “wells,” the string quartet had a repeated pattern (for the most part) that continued until he would give a downbeat with his clarinet and they would move on.
Stylistically, Azmeh’s music was vaguely reminiscent of Jewish Kelzmer music, an impression that was greatly amplified by the fact that he was playing on a clarinet (which takes the lead in much of Kelzmer music.) Azmeh’s music also shared Kelzmer’s use of altered scales to create different modes, rather than the standard major and minor of Western music.
Azmeh is a virtuoso clarinetist of astounding abilities and he pushed himself to the very limits of what is possible on the instrument. The fast tempi were very fast indeed and, although the clarinet is capable of great facility in the hands of a player with nimble fingers, Azmeh took it into new flights of rapid-fire notes moving from through the entire range of the instrument.
It was a completely thrilling performance of music that sounded both new and ancient at the same time.