Sunday, March 16, 2014

Early Music Now: East of the River, through the woods and into the desert

Medieval music from Italy and points east filled the UWM Zelazo Center Saturday afternoon, as Early Music Now presented East of the River.

Daphna Mor and Nina Stern, recorder players by trade, lead the ad-hoc group. For this program, it also comprises violinist Jesse Kotansky; Tamer Pinarbasi, kanun (a Turkish zither of 78 strings and 26 courses, with nine levers to bend tones); and Luke Notary on a variety of percussion instruments, including the cajon, a Peruvian bench drum that served as his seat throughout the concert.

Mor and Stern branched out from a battery of recorders. Mor took up the Turkish ney flute and Stern played the chalumeau, which I had never heard before. That instrument, no bigger than a soprano recorder, sounds very much like the middle-bottom third of a clarinet. (So that's why they call it the chalumeau register.)

In Levantera, Mor and Stern sample courtly and folk music from Persia, the Balkans, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and, especially, Armenia. These varied cultures all seem to share affection for compound meters and scales with flatted second degrees and microtonal inflections. The virtuosic Italian estampie, which Stern and Mor played with dazzling agility, showed some Eastern influence, especially after Notary drummed in a belly-dance beat. I'm not sure what the "Petrone," a contrapuntal flight for two recorders from an old British manuscript, was doing on this program other than being a charming outlier.

Daphne Mor, Nina Stern. Photo courtesy of the
East of the River website.
Stern arranged "Ghaetta," originally a solo piece, for two. I think that might tip their approach to this old music: Work from historical knowledge, but do with it what you will. After all, musicians did exactly that back in the day. All this music has been mongrel for centuries, though regional theoreticians formalized systems on the courtly side of things.

To extend that thinking a little: Most Westerners would peg this entire program as Gypsy music. Romas traveled all these lands, picked up what they heard, mixed it and brought it West. High-brow Germans appropriated it as they pleased. Movie composers borrowed and adapted it as local-color scoring, what you hear when James Bond's jet touches down in Bucharest. Exotic as this music appears to be on paper ("The Samai uses the 10/8 rhythmic mode... throughout the taslim and the first three khanat...") it all sounds very familiar. Most of it turns on some sort of ritornello/rondo form with recurring sections between tangents, so it's not hard to follow.

Levantera doesn't teach us much about any one musical culture. But the subliminal message might be: in a region of fluid borders and numerous, roving subcultures, national boundaries have little influence on music. Also, the gap between courtly Classical traditions and music of the caravans and villages is narrow. To hear East of the River play it, both high and low musical culture have traditions of virtuoso instrumentalism and both allow plenty of room for improvisation.

These five players are very good at all of this and very good at it together. Pinarbasi's two extended kanan solos, Longa Farahfaza and Longa Nahawand, were as daunting to play and as amazing to hear as the most complex cadenza from any piano concerto. Though his instrument comes from the high-art tradition, Pinarbasi was entirely at home joining his four colleagues in a set of three tavern-shaking Balkan dances.

I like to learn a little more from this sort of concert than Stern and Mor were willing to teach. They didn't tell us much about the music from the stage and the program notes were skimpy. But this was a concert, not an archaeological dig. East of the River played the music as if born to it centuries ago and far away. They played with vigor, verve and soul.

Next up for Early Music Now: Four Nations Ensemble plays LeClair and Rameau, April 12.

Don't Miss Anything: Sign up in the box to the right of this story to receive an email notice each time I post.