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Musical Bridges Around the World

Sailing the EastWest Passage

December 15, 2010

"Strange Frenzy,” a provocative new chamber work by San Antonio composer Jack Stamps, capped an afternoon of extraordinary performances on the Musical Bridges Around the World concert series, Dec. 12 in McAllister Auditorium.

The concert brought together two touring duos of very different character. Cellist Wendy Warner and pianist Irina Nuzova comprised one pair, representing the European classical tradition. Violist Kathryn Lockwood and percussionist Yousif Sheronick (wife and husband) were the other pair, representing a wide swath of folk traditions from the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe to the Middle East and South India. (They tour under the name duoJalal.) Violinist Mark Cheikhet, heard frequently in these concerts, completed the roster.

Warner, Nuzova and Cheikhet, in various permutations, opened the program with Frederic Chopin’s “Polonaise brillante” for piano and cello, Aram Khatchaturian’s Song Poem for violin and piano, Robert Schumann’s Fantasie Pieces, Op. 73, for cello and piano and Dmitri Shostakovich’s early Trio No. 1, not as great a piece as the devastating epic of the (overexposed) Second Trio, but worth hearing nonetheless.

Warner’s lively tone, oceanic resonance, technical assurance, assertive rhetoric and interpretive generosity place her among the world’s great cellists. Nuzova played with admirable clarity. Cheikhet was on generally solid ground technically but, by comparison with Warner, interpretively closed in.

Sheronik is a brilliant percussionist with a born trader’s interest in musical products from around the world, and his fingers have an uncanny ability to coax an astonishing variety of timbres from the simplest bangable objects -- mostly frame drums and a cajón, a large wooden box of a type that originally was associated with Afro-Peruvian music. Lockwood is a violist who produces an uncommonly rich tone and a wonderful singing line.

As the repertoire for viola and, say, frame drum is not very copious, much of the music they played was adapted or augmented. Sheronick was the composer of "Jubb Jannin," a tribute to his mother's village in Lebanon, giving the viola an almost Bellinian melodic line. Most remarkable was David Krakauer’s “Klezmer a la Bechet,” originally for his band Klezmer Madness. Lockwood, playing with considerable verve and snap,  melded the elaborate clarinet and accordion lines, while Sheronick handled the rhythm with a frame drum and a rattle attached to his left foot. It was surprisingly stylish -- the duo had worked with Krakauer to get it right -- and completely delightful.

Stamps is a San Antonio native who spent some time in the world of alt-rock and then began studying formal composition in 2001. His remarkable String Quartet No. 2, performed by Austin’s Tosca String Quartet two years ago in a Composers Alliance of San Antonio concert, revealed both a good grasp of classical compositional technique and a taste for unconventional notation, chance processes and American pop  and jazz idioms.

“Strange Frenzy,” too, fuses disparate points of view. The piece is subtitled “The Dance of the Seven Veils” -- one movement per veil. The allusion is not to Salome but to author Tom Robbins, who described (in “Skinny Legs and All”) seven illusions that characterize Western culture.

Musical Bridges commissioned the piece specifically for this concert’s somewhat dichotomous ensemble, which also suited the composer’s interest in a “reconciliation” between Eastern and Western musical traditions.
Stamps distributed the Eastern side predominantly to percussionist Sheronick and violist Lockwood, both of whom were fully comfortable with the difficult (for Westerners) Eastern pulse. Violinist Cheikhet and cellist Warner had a little less to do than did Lockwood, and the cello and piano, especially, tended to be given more-regular patterns typical of Western music. Harmonically, too, the piece seemed to layer two distinct realms. In tutti passages, the rhythmic and harmonic complications sometimes muddied the texture, but the music commanded attention nonetheless with its inventiveness, its fluid movement and its colorations.   
The connection between literary inspiration and musical expression seemed mostly tenuous, at best. The possible exception was the fifth movement, “The Illusion That Money Has Value,” with its ka-chinging tambourine and an obsessive groove, laid down by piano and pizzicato cello, that suggested blind accumulation.

The seventh movement, “The Illusion That You Can Get Someone Else To Do It for You,” has an optional vocal line drawn from  the Persian poet Rumi and performed here by Stamps. All seven movements were accompanied by Austin dancer Julie Nathanielsz, blending modern and Middle Eastern  traditional dance tropes.

Together with the complexity of the music itself, the result was an overabundance of competitors for attention. Sometimes less is more.   

Mike Greenberg