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Camerata San Antonio; Kinan Azmeh

Whiplash and fusion

April 1, 2014

Sunday was a busy day for music, with an eclectic concert by Camera San Antonio’s string quartet and a visit by the Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and friends for Musical Bridges Around the World.

Camerata’s “Mixtape” concert at Christ Episcopal Church reminded me of a musical ice-cream truck I heard recently, enticing children with the “Liebestod” lodged improbably between “Jingle Bells” and “Oh, My Darling Clementine.”
The program of eight short works for string quartet opened and closed in familiar territory (Franz Schubert’s “Quartettsatz” and Hugo Wolff’s sprightly “Italian Serenade”) but took bizarre twists and turns along the way.

The troupe’s robust, more-than-usually restless account of the “Quartettsatz” was followed by the fiery, highly syncopated “Arabian Waltz” by the Lebanese composer and oud master Rabih Abou-Khalil, which in turn was followed by the meditative, almost static, neo-medieval “Fratres” by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, with a repeated, slightly varying chant theme over a drone for second violin (Anastasia Storer). Then, just in case any listeners had not yet sustained whiplash injuries, the first half closed with the American composer Michael Daugherty’s sequined and pompadoured “Elvis Everywhere,” which combined live, vaguely Bartokian music for string quartet and the composer’s studio recording of three Elvis impersonators warbling fragments of his songs.

The second half as a bit less zany. Igor Stravinsky’s Concertino benefited from violinist Matthew Zerweck’s beefy double-stops. The Mexican composer Javier Alvarez’s “Metro Chabacano,” one of three short pieces inspired by Mexico City subway stations,  was a fascinating amalgam of Mexican nationalist (à la Carlos Chavez) and jazz tendencies; a lovely melody for viola (Emily Freudigman) emerged near the end. The American experimenter Charles Ives contributed a tiny, hypermodern “Scherzo (Holding Your Own).” Wolf’s “Italian Serenade” got a highly pleasurable performance — fleet, with a vibrant bloom to the dynamics, and lots of oomph from both Mr Zerweck and cellist Ken Freudigman. The delicious encore was an over-the-top Polka by Alfred Schnittke.

Slight but persistent disparities in intonation marred some of the pieces (mainly the Pärt and Stravinsky), but all the performances were stylish and fully committed.

Performing that evening for a near-capacity crowd in San Fernando Cathedral, Mr. Azmeh, a resident of New York for many years, brought with him a long-time collaborator, percussionist John Hadfield. They we're joined by the Austin-based pianist Michael Schneider and San Antonio Symphony bassist Zlatan Redzic.

Mr. Azmeh’s own solo work “A Sad Morning, Every Morning,” a memorial to the many who have died in Syria’s civil war, opened the concert, with the clarinetist playing his lamentation while entering down the cathedral’s center aisle. The piece partook of Arabic musical traditions with its pitch inflections and sinuous lines, and it closed with a fluttering that faded away to nothing.

The mood changed abruptly with the exuberant opening of Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, although, as in so much of Poulenc’s music, the wit was tempered by a sense of spiritual longing, especially in the middle movement. In that movement, Mr. Azmeh impressed with the richness of his tone and the steadiness of his sustained notes. In the quick finale — and, indeed throughout this concert — the trait that came to the fore was his ability to ride the crest of a phrase.

The story was much the same in Bela Bartok’s “Romanian Folk Dances” for clarinet and piano, the tornadic finale of which Mr. Azmeh played brilliantly. The folk roots continued with László Draskóczy’s “Dances from Korond” (an ethnic Hungarian region of Romanian Transylvania), though this music was less engaging than the works that preceded it. Mr. Schneider was a remarkably responsive partner in all three works for clarinet and piano.

To close the concert, Mr. Hadfield and Mr. Redzic joined Mr. Azmeh in four of his original works, in a jazz-Arabic-experimental fusion that would have been equally at home in a concert hall and a coffee house. “139th,” recalling the composer’s apartment above a deli on 139th Street in New York, was full of urban energy. “Nov. 22” opened with a sort of fantasia for bass solo, played very stylishly by Mr. Redzic. Mr. Azmeh said he had composed “Airports” during a five-hour detention at JFK — one can hear the impatient tapping of fingers on a table. “Wedding” was a celebratory piece ending with fireworks, courtesy of Mr. Hadfield, whose percussion work throughout this set was among the most enterprising, varied and complex in my experience. 

Mike Greenberg