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Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Arts & Letters

Carnegie Hall Ventures into New Terrain: The Orchestra of Fes and Françoise Atlan

I’ve already attended six concerts there (including a press concert on September 10 that included such artists as soprano Renée Fleming, pianist Emanuel Ax, pianist Kenny Baron’s jazz quintet, and the West African-oriented Fula Flute Ensemble), and I have heard artists perform both acoustic and amplified concerts. Although, as others have noted, Zankel’s sound lacks the burnished sheen and bloom of its upstairs neighbor, the main Isaac Stern Auditorium, it is very clear: piano articulation is quite crisp, and good vocalists (more on that later) can be easily heard. Renée Fleming spoke from the stage without a microphone, and her voice carried without difficulty to the back of the hall. While the hall was built for acoustic recitals, the mixing for the amplified concerts has been first-rate, without exception.

There is, of course, the niggling matter of the subway. As has been widely reported, Zankel is two levels underground, nestled right into the subterranean world less than ten feet from the train tracks. You can hear — and feel — the trains pretty easily on the audience’s right-hand side, and slightly less so on the left. But there’s something very appealing about the whole situation. Yes, the city seems to say, you can have your pristine, elegant temple to music, but it is going to have to live cheek-to-jowl with the sticky grime of the 57th Street N/R/Q/W stop and the rattling roar of the trains going through the station. New York is New York, and we make room where we can — not by erecting a hall far from the city’s heart.

One of the first world-music concerts to be presented in the new space (in an event co-sponsored by New York’s World Music Institute) was by a group of musicians representing art music of Morocco that has its roots in the ninth century. We tend to think of “fusion” music as a twentieth-century innovation, but the art music of Andalusia points to multicultural music-making as a very old phenomenon indeed. Beginning in the twelfth century, the music of Muslim Spain and North Africa — combining elements of European court music, high Arab and Jewish traditions, and local styles — became a potent cultural force. The Arab poetic traditions of qasidah, muwashshah, and zajal, as well as the Jewish style of piyyutim, eventually codified into a system of song cycles know as the nubat. Today, the performance of Moroccan Andalusian music is based primarily on an eighteenth-century compilation of song texts made by Muhammad Ibn al-Hassan al-Hayik, a scholar from the city of Tetouan. In al-Hayik’s nubat, each song cycle was identified with a particular mode, and texts were chosen to complement the emotions associated with the given mode.

The Orchestra of Fes was founded in 1946 by Abdelkrim Rais to preserve the traditions of Arab-Andalusian music. Currently led by Mohamed Briouel — the director of Fes’s Conservatoire de Musique — the ensemble has performed widely throughout the world and collaborated with non-Moroccan musicians, including the noted early-music specialist Joel Cohen and his Boston Camerata. Among his other projects, Briouel transcribed the eleven Arab-Andalusian nubats into Western notation: and therein lies a challenge familiar to many ethnomusicologists. On the one hand, notation helps preserve music that otherwise risks being lost in strictly oral transmission. On the other hand, Western notation does not account for many aspects of non-Western musical systems, be they so-called microtonal pitches and modalities or styles of melodic embellishment; consequently, the non-Western music subjected to this process of “preservation” can lose its essential characteristics. As Philip D. Schuyler and Robert Browning remarked in their program notes for this concert, the introduction of the Western well-tempered scale, and the use of instruments associated with Western music, can have serious repercussions on the music’s transmission: “The microtonal intervals typical of the Middle East do not seem to play an important role in Andalusian music. Most Andalusian musicians and conservatory teachers now maintain that there are no microtones at all. The disappearance of (or disbelief in) non-tempered intervals may be attributable to the piano, introduced by the French both as a tool for teaching solfège in the conservatory and as an instrument of the orchestra.”

And therein lies the problem. The accommodations that have been made for the Western tempered scale seem, to some extent, to have leached out some of Andalusian music’s colors and flavors. While the Carnegie program was quite pleasant, well over an hour and a half gently flowed by without many emotional or technical highs. (It didn’t help that the program the musicians settled upon for the performance bore little relationship to the printed program, or that the pieces that were played weren’t announced from the stage.) Many of the songs performed bled into each other without significant changes of mood or style. Certainly, performances of the nubat are meant to link together mizans, or movements, but there simply wasn’t enough variety or contrast.

The evening’s featured singer was the vocalist Françoise Atlan, whose own roots lie in the Jewish and Berber communities. Her career has centered on music from around the Mediterranean; in the early 1990s, she led a group called Aksak, focusing on Turkish, Greek, and Armenian songs. In addition, she collaborated with the Orchestra of Fes and Cohen for a notable recording of twelfth-century music, Cantigas de Santa Maria. She has won many awards, but her Carnegie appearance was disappointing. Unlike the other vocalists I’ve heard at Zankel, her thin, small voice simply vanished; many times, it was nearly impossible to discern whether she was singing in Ladino, Arabic, or Hebrew. Her demeanor, too, was expressionless. For most of the concert, she sat with the musicians, encased in a voluminous black robe, her hands folded in her lap. Zankel Hall provides an opportunity for true intimacy between artist and audience, and Atlan missed a golden opportunity to truly connect with her listeners. However, Atlan does glide up and down between register changes smoothly and evenly, and her ornamentation, full of beautiful little arabesques, points to her work in the styles of Asia Minor. Her bottom notes, too, are dark and silky; one could only wish that her top were equally rich.

Although the traveling Orchestra of Fes (here made up of two violins, viola, oud, tar, and darbuka) is a much smaller ensemble than one might find in Morocco, the group’s forces still outshone Atlan. It wasn’t just their subtle and refined instrumental delivery that took center-stage: even their secondary roles as chorus singers distinguished them. In particular, the tar player, Aziz Alami, possesses an impassioned voice and fire-breathing delivery not unlike the style of Pakistani Sufi qawwals. Another standout performer was the oudi, Azzedine Montasser; his sparkling taximia were delicate little points of light. The opportunity to hear Andalusian music remains a relatively rare treat, so any opportunity is welcome.

However uncompelling this particular evening may have been on its own terms, it was a single misstep at the beginning of an incredibly exciting new era in New York City concert life. Along with performances by a pantheon of celebrated classical and new-music artists (including such headliners as the Kronos Quartet, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and the Juilliard String Quartet, among others) upcoming world music performances at Zankel also co-presented by the World Music Institute include the Romanian Rom group Taraf de Haïdouks, oud virtuoso Simon Shaheen (doing a tribute to Egyptian legends Abdel Wahab and Oum Kalthoum), and Indian sitar master Ustad Vilayat Khan.

Bringing art music from non-Western traditions into bastions of Western classical music has long been the dream of many in the world-music community. Giving this music parity at Zankel is an important step in this process. Happily, it’s a win-win situation all around: artists get access to Carnegie’s formidable resources, Carnegie attracts new audiences, and thereby new revenue streams, and people who might never venture to “alternative” venues like nightclubs and less-storied theaters will explore music that they might otherwise never hear. Zankel Hall’s ambitious programming is as exciting and inviting as the space itself.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a columnist for Billboard and also writes about music for publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, Gramophone, and Jazz Times. She can be heard regularly on NPR’s Weekend America and WNYC’s Soundcheck. More of her work is available at
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