Concert at Freer Gallery fuses modernism with Turkish and Persian musical tradition

March 7

For millennia, Anatolia (also known as Asia Minor) has been a cultural crossroads where the arts of East and West met and transformed each other. That kind of cross-fertilization continues — as an intriguing concert at the Freer Gallery of Art on Thursday night demonstrated — and is producing music that fuses hard-edged modernism with the deep currents of Turkish and Persian musical traditions.

The evening included a range of performers, from Kazem Davoudian (a virtuoso on the santur, a 72-string hammered dulcimer) to the cutting-edge ModernWorks Ensemble. Davoudian provided the most vivid links to tradition, performing two lengthy, impassioned improvisations built on the modes of Persian classical music. Both were sweeping tapestries of sound that evoked landscapes of windswept plains, rolling caravans, frenzied tribal dances and the smoke of wood fires.

The focus of the evening was “Asumani,” a 2012 work for flute and cello by the gifted Turkish American composer Kamran Ince. It builds spare, questioning music gestures — flavored with microtones and other “extended” instrumental techniques — into a radiant climax before dissolving again into silence. The playful “Lines” (an earlier work for clarinet and piano) showed Ince’s more approachable side, although clarinetist Jo-Ann Sternberg turned in a restrained, low-key performance that never quite took off.

Dancer and choreographer Nejla Yatkin provided a brief dance interlude with her muscular but fluid “What dreams may come . . .” in a world premiere, and cellist Madeleine Shapiro turned in a superb reading of Tolga Tuzun’s “Five Preludes” for solo cello, conjuring up an array of exotic sounds that held together with conviction and purpose.

A set of six “Folk Songs” by the Iranian-born Reza Vali most effortlessly unified tradition with modernism. Vali’s sonic imagination is both sophisticated and vivid — his pairing of a bass flute against high harmonics on the cello was only one of many memorable moments — but there’s a simplicity and directness of expression at the core of his music that made these songs not just interesting but moving. More of Vali’s music is being featured at the Freer on Saturday night.


Madeleine Shapiro, director and cellist of ModernWorks. (Steven Speliotis)

Brookes is a freelance writer.

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