Within the past decade or two, as what was once known as ethnic music has become the official genre of world music, and now as music from just about anywhere is just an Internet click away, music seems less and less about geographical culture than personal taste. It is no more uncommon for an American college student's musical passion to be Indonesian music and to learn to play in a gamelan orchestra at CalArts or UCLA or the Claremont Colleges than it is for an Arab to love Western music and play Mozart and Beethoven in an orchestra in Damascus.
The world, though, isn't so small yet that the American debut Friday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center of just such an orchestra, the Syrian National Symphony, didn't bring the hope of exoticism with it. This is Syria's only Western orchestra, and it is a young band, formed just five years ago and containing many young players, mainly students and recent graduates of the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus, and led by the school's dean, an Iranian conductor, Solhi Al Wadi.
Much of the exoticism Friday came from the elegant audience, largely drawn from a convention in Newport Beach of the Arab American Medical Assn. (the timing was not coincidental) and from the large Southland Syrian community. A sense of occasion does not always heighten receptivity to music, as anyone who regularly attends high society opening nights can attest, but in this case it did. In the very long history of Damascus, civilization's cradle, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 and Beethoven's Second Symphony--the two main works on the program--are still novel, and that sense of fresh discovery was everywhere apparent in players and listeners.
The orchestra itself is thus far more enthusiastic than accomplished. It is not one of the gleaming, perfectly tuned and synchronized machines that so many big-city orchestras have become. But it doesn't play Mozart and Beethoven as a foreign language either. Hearing an unidentified recording of this band, I would be hard-pressed to identify its geography. Al Wadi, moreover, is a traditional conductor who conventionally (and capably) shapes a melodic line, oversees rhythmic rigor and properly propels a musical argument.
Hamsa Al Wadi Juris, the conductor's daughter and pianist in the Mozart concerto, doesn't quite have his authority, though she boasts a Russian education and a faculty position at the Helsinki Sibelius Institute. She does have a lyric gift, and there were beautiful moments in the slow movement. But a certain temerity of tone and stiffness in the more difficult passage work made her seem more a team player than soloist.
The orchestra was bolder and more engaging, if, perhaps, even less technically sure. Beethoven's Second Symphony sounded especially proud--loud, raucous, at times, almost military. This is a far cry from the fleet, classically toned-down style that had become the late 20th century way of performing early Beethoven; it's closer to a Russian style (there are several Russian players in the orchestra). Yet the Syrians may actually tell us more about the effect Beethoven had on his audiences than today's more stylistically historical performances do. Audiences' first impressions in Beethoven's time were that this was raw, radical, powerful stuff.
Two pieces closer to the Syrians' home were also on the program: Adel Jeray's "Maquam Shanaz" for Lute and Strings and Suliman Aliskirov's Movements for Three Lutes and Strings. Both composers are Azerbaijani (Jeray lived 1919-1973; Aliskirov was born in 1924). The lutes are, in fact, the Arab oud. And both pieces were folk-inspired miniatures, so brief that they seemed mere tokens. The soloists were Juan Karajouly and Fouad Shelghin (the third lutenist for Aliskirov's piece was ill, but since the lutes seemed to play in unison, that wasn't a problem).
An encore, Fantasia by a Hungarian composer, Hides Frigyes, introduced the orchestra's engagingly flamboyant principal clarinetist, Kinan Azmeh. More Hungarian music would be welcome from this band; the players seem to have a knack for it. World music makes surprising connections.