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Music to Evoke Hope

April 29, 2008

It's not every day that you get an Israeli pianist, a Palestinian oud player, and an Egyptian conductor together on the same stage.
But this is exactly what the Sacramento Philharmonic did during its "Songs of Hope" concert at Sacramento's Community Center Theater on Saturday evening. And in doing so, this orchestra made the elegant argument that music can destroy all borders and make friends of perceived enemies.

That music has this potential, however, has never been in question. The larger question was how such a Middle Eastern focus to the music would play in Sacramento.

Would audiences oblige the orchestra in its maverick programming of Nader Abbassi's Between Dusk and Dawn, along with Menachem Weisenberg's Concertino for Oud, Piano, and Orchestra, featuring the Israeli pianist Sonia Rubinsky and an Palestinian oud master, Taiseer Elias?

The answer was a resounding "yes," from a robust crowd whose members were clearly moved by the music. And this was a refreshingly different audience from the typical Sacramento classical music audience. At this concert, you could see rows of women in hijab headresses enjoying the music.

For two musically poignant and powerful hours the Sacramento Philharmonic proved it can be as fresh, edgy, and provocative as any orchestra.

The lineup of guest artists and the conductor seemed to energize the musicians of the Sacramento Philharmonic. And that energy translated into music that was electric and alive. It was the most dynamic and crisp this orchestra has sounded all season.
Psyche-Probing Music
The highlight of the evening was Between Dusk and Dawn, a dark work by Abbassi, an Egyptian-born conductor and composer, who over the course of the program shared conducting duties with Sacramento Philharmonic Conductor Michael Morgan, who is also music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony. Under Morgan's baton, this work, a U.S. premiere, bloomed as an elegant and descriptive meld of Egyptian music and well-crafted orchestration. The music fit the subject matter beautifully.

Abbassi was inspired by the story of two serial-killer sisters in Alexandria, Egypt, circa 1920. In plumbing their psyches, his music uncoils like a shadowy, rhythmically narcotic dream. Smartly written percussion was an equal to each melodic line. Here the orchestra sounded taut and willing to add detail, with the strings offering a lush but precise sound.

This work was a great contrast to the piece that opened the concert — Erwin Schulhoff's Lustige Overture fuer Orchestre (Joyous overture for orchestra). This sassy work, riddled with references to the music of Richard Strauss, saw the most affecting and sonically rich performance from the instrumentalists. The overture demands playing with a nod toward jazz, and these musicians obliged. Conductor Michael Morgan coaxed a squeaky-clean performance here, with the brass adding a chromelike shimmer to the music.

A counterpoint to both of these works was Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto in A Minor, with Israeli pianist Sonia Rubinsky as soloist. Rubinsky is an exact but unassuming pianist, and her approach to this concerto was one of playing as part of a group with the orchestra. But this does not fully satisfy the drama needed to sell Schumann's delicious carriage ride through a Romantic wilderness. At times, her piano was too softly delivered.

Abbassi's conducting here showed a delicate touch and a confident air, even though the balance of the orchestra and piano was somewhat out of whack. Nonetheless, he drew a restrained but still expressive performance from the string section.
Thoughtful Work for the Oud
Much stronger was Rubinsky's playing in the Concertino for Oud, Piano, and Orchestra. Here Rubinsky was joined by a Palestinian oud player, Taiseer Elias, who did not disappoint. His playing is as lyrical as it is forthright. This pensive concertino calls for deep communication between the oud (a member of the lute family, played in northern Africa and southwest Asia) and the piano. And it was refreshing to see the interplay between Rubinsky and Elias. The heartfelt and flawless delivery from both soloists, coupled with Abbassi's restrained but finely directed conducting, put a fine point on the evening's overarching musical theme.

To conclude, the orchestra performed Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. At this point the orchestra had given its audience enough to call it a full evening. And so the three-movement work felt almost like an encore, even though the work is a musical call for unity and fit in perfectly with the program's goal.

Here the orchestra employed the use of the Sacramento Master Singers and the ethereal treble of Brooks Fisher, with Abbassi conducting. Abbassi was not always able to coax the jazzy swagger that colors Bernstein's work. Nor was this as clear and properly blended a performance as all the music that preceded it, despite well-delivered singing by chorus and soloist.

Themed concerts sometimes offer a forced arrangement of works. But this concert was not one of them. The appearance of the soloists and the interesting program that they performed seemed entirely organic, as well as timely. And that combination proved a potent tonic for the Sacramento Philharmonic.

Edward Ortiz is an arts and science writer who has written for The Sacramento Bee, The Boston Globe, and The Providence Journal. He is also a contributor to Symphony Magazine and www.newmusicbox.org.