On August 8, 2015, the Herald published an article of mine about various concerts, containing one that was given at the Colón in the Barenboim Festival. I quote myself: "There was a completely unexpected inclusion: a chamber concert of Iranian and Arabic music". Then I raised several points; two bear repeating: "if you believe (as I do) that the Colón is for classical music, this concert is as out of place as Argentine folk music or bossa nova... If I accept the idea, what I want is true music of those origins, no fusion. And this didn´t happen".
But I neglected to add a major matter: the whole purpose of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is to obtain a musical camaraderie between Israelis and Palestines; wouldn´t it have been much more in accord with this philosophy to offer a concert in two parts, one with Arabic music and the other with Jewish? For outside their respective communities, the authentic sound of those cultures is little-known to the public at large, and such a concert would have not only a factor of entertainment but also an attempt to tell didactically what their music is about.
In one sense, this year´s concert is an improvement, for the presentation of the Al Diwan Ensemble was closer to the mark as regards authenticity; but it was only Arabic music. Furthermore, the presentation in the hand programe is a disaster: a) not one word of explanation, when no other concert of the Festival needed it so much. b) if you have any change of programme, put it in writing; in the Second Part one of the players announced confusedly and in low voice that there would be changes (more on it further in this review). c) Arab titles without translation are surely unhelpful and there were none except in three numbers.
I have to mention a further question: the sounds of enthusiasm in the audience were very youthful, and indeed there were many young people; as the tickets were very expensive, they probably were invited, maybe with some intervention from Arabian embassies. That´s alright, but worth mentioning, for the habitual Colón goers know little about this music.
Now let´s make a distinction: our Argentine folklore is consumed in four different ways: the pure thing as recopilated by Vega, Aretz or Valladares; what is called folkloric projection, going from the traditional Ábalos to artists with more modern conceptions such as Juárez; fusion with other cultures but still popular music; and the stylisations made by classical composers such as Ginastera. I surmise without being sure that something similar may occur in Arabic music, for no less than seven pieces have authors: all dead except one, but all Twentieth Century.
I confess my ignorance about Arabic composers creating music for symphony orchestras but in Arabic style, such as Bloch has done for the Jewish heritage in "Schelomo". Anyway, the Al-Diwan Ensemble was, according to the programme, "formed specially for this concert with members of Arabic origin of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to interpret with various autochtonous instruments the best instrumental music of the Arabic world". I beg to differ in two matters: surely three violins, one viola, one cello and one bass are not Arabic but normal instruments of an Occidental orchestra; and there were also vocal pieces.
But some instruments are autochthonous: the oud (transformed in the Occident, for it´s the lute); the qanun, a zither (there are similar but not exactly alike instruments in Europe); and among the percussion, the darabukka (a small drum of particular shape). And of course they were the ones that gave more character to the music.
It serves no practical purpose for readers to mention the names of the composers and the titles of the pieces (sample: Salim el Helou: Sama´Isuthdel). Three titles are also in English: "My memories", "Music immortal river" and "The beauty".
Characteristics: melody either soloistic or in unanimous group accompanied by rhythm; no counterpoint; and no vertical harmony (chords) although the music has a tacit harmony. My reaction as a critic raised on the Occidental tradition: I liked the music and found it had its own coherence. Solo string playing is sinuous and sliding, with little vibrato. Changes of speed within the same piece; feeling of rhythmic pulse in two or three beats. Impressed by the virtuosity of the kanun player (Gilbert Yammine).
Now to the vocal pieces: they were sung by Ilona Danho, an attractive girl with agreeable timbre and a knack for communication. Ilona sounds Hungarian to me, but she seemed completely at home in the repertoire she did. There was a major change and I regret it: she was supposed to sing Aramaeic and Syrian music of the Fifth Century, as sung in the Mesopotamia (intriguing for two facts: they are not geographically or historically of the Mesopotamia; and what kind of notation did they have in the Fifth Century? Occident had no notation until the Eleventh Century). She sang instead music billed as being Assyrian of the Tenth Century; it did sound older than the rest, but only a specialised musicologist could tell me the truth. Other pieces were described as Traditional from Aleppo (Syrian), Syria and Irak.
The concert ended with the deliriously fast and rhythmical "The beauty", which sounded to me much too modern for the dates of the author Sayed Darwish (1892-1923).