More than 20 years ago, Kronos Quartet’s David Harrington heard Azerbaijan’s great singer Alim Qasimov perform mugham — Azeri poetry as song — for the first time. Meanwhile, Qasimov had a dream. He’d seen Turkish and Iranian groups play with cellos and violins. “I can only imagine,” he told the Aga Khan Trust, “what you could do with our mugham if you had those instruments.” He needed the help of an arranger, without whom such a large ensemble performance would be impossible. That’s where Harrington and Kronos stepped in. They enlisted Jacob Garchik to make Qasimov’s dream a reality, which they brought to the University of Maryland on Saturday night.
Qasimov is a singer with true gravitational pull, around which his ensemble of five, plus the four members of Kronos, revolved. The real fuel Kronos burns is collaboration. The violins pitched the emotion higher, amplifying the work of the more lyrical spike fiddle player. Cellist Jeffrey Zeigler added the most to this thickening texture, which in one mugham, “My Spirited Horse,” raced toward full drum-backed gallop.
Qasimov and his daughter, Fargana, traded lines in a yin-yang balance of perfect intonation. His multi-octave resonance cut quickly to whisper and hiked right back up to full-throated cry, like a call to prayer, as he raised his hands like a preacher. No embellishment was affectation, only evocation. Song is so natural to his soul that he was having a simple conversation with the quartet, the ensemble and the audience with an intimacy that’s rare in a large concert hall. The final notes heaved upward, as sparks from a fire rise.
When Kronos played alone in the first half of Garchik’s arrangement of Syrian song, the ending cry was but a pale shade of the second half’s Qasimov-led delights.
Buker is a freelance writer.