The Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble promotes the theory that cultural understanding on the concert stage can promote harmony in world affairs. On Wednesday the group of about 20 musicians from nine countries delivered its own brand of diplomacy at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage. Led by Hicham Chami, the ensemble contained mainly Western orchestral instruments -- violin, viola, cello, bass and flute. But the performers achieved a Middle Eastern style of musicmaking by including hand drums and tambourine, bending notes and infusing melodic lines with exotic rhythms -- exotic to Western ears, that is.
Palestinian Naser Mousa and Israeli Ya'ir Dalal composed and arranged several of the pieces, many of which relied heavily on the melodic minor scale, the scale whose sound typifies Middle Eastern music. Mousa and Dalal fronted the band with their ornate lutelike ouds and fine baritone voices. They created an amazingly smooth sound with the ensemble's precise rhythms and perfect intonation.
"Salaam" ("Peace") had the stirring effect of combining lyrics sung by Mousa in Arabic and by Dalal in Hebrew as they played along on their ouds; the blending of timbres was impressively seamless. Composer and arranger Kareem Roustom offered his "Samai Nahawand" as a meditation. Roustom led the orchestra with his oud, and solos within the orchestra by violin, cello and flute were heartfelt and touching. In contrast, Dalal's "Malka's Brother" had a joyful beat, and Dalal's earthy fiddle playing made it refreshingly folksy.
-- Gail Wein