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Hewar and Gurdjieff Ensemble @Hollandfestival: music unites two troubled peoples

After the splashy finale of Ishtar by Dima Orsho, the audience stands up as one and bursts into ovational applause. I am almost stunned by the loud cheers and cheers that overwhelm the members of Hewar and the Gurdjief Ensemble. Bewildered, I look around me: surely there would be another song? But no, the flower girls are already walking onto the stage of the Muziekgebouw, so I must have made a mistake. I put the programme overview away to clap along. Then clarinettist Kinan Azmeh says grinning into the microphone: 'This is a world premiere, flowers before the last song!'

Political charge

Amid great hilarity, everyone sits back down to hear the real finale of this mixed Armenian-Syrian concert. Gorani-Tamzara refers to a song by a Syrian-Armenian singer that was recorded in Aleppo, Azmeh says. The symbolism of this city destroyed in the Syrian civil war escapes no one. The whole concert has political overtones. Millions of Armenians were killed or expelled during the 1915 genocide and led(d) a life in the diaspora. Syrians are now fleeing the violence and devastation in their homeland.

An interesting idea to unite these two troubled peoples musically. Syria's Hewar employs western-classical instruments: clarinet, cello, viola d'amore. Singer/composer Dima Orsho is as virtuoso in jazzy scats as she is in Arabic-tinged vocal lines full of microtonal embellishments. The Gurdjieff Ensemble plays on native Arabic instruments. Alongside the familiar oud (lute), santur and qanun (plank-citers) are the Persian tar (type of guitar) and the kemençe, a two-stringed viola.

Nostalgia incarnate

An important role is played by the duduk, an Armenian double reed instrument that expresses nostalgia incarnate with its melancholic sound. The player of the bass duduk is working overtime, as in many pieces he lays a foundation with a drone that resonates from beginning to end. Witness his bulging cheeks, Norayr Gapoyan realises this uninterrupted tone thanks to circular breathing.

The two seemingly different sound worlds turn out to fit together wonderfully. Clarinetist Kinan Azmeh approaches the sound of the duduk with a subdued tone; fierce outbursts, on the contrary, recall the zurna, a screeching Armenian shawm.

The similarities rather than the differences between the pieces on offer are striking. From George Gurdjieff (c 1866-1949) to Komitas Vardapet (1969-1935) and Kinan Azmeh (1976), all write homophonic music, in which the instruments and vocals imitate and vary each other's melody lines. Dima Orsho's voice and Kinan Azmeh's clarinet are sometimes barely distinguishable from each other.

Lack of contrast

The musicians play excellently. They bounce motives off each other with infectious pleasure and enchant us with beautiful, partly improvised solos and splashy deployments. In the long run, the lack of contrast does take a bit of a revenge. Despite all the variation in rhythm, dynamics, singing and number of layers, the - pleasantly euphonious - sound world becomes somewhat uniform.

I spring to my feet as Kinan Azmeh takes us into Fantasy for Three Characters finally presents some dissonant harmonies. Tigran Mansurian's new composition is downright disappointing. His Tun Ari (Come Home) is by its own admission an ode to Syrian refugees, but does not rise above the level of a children's song.

The length of an hour and 15 minutes indicated in the programme book is greatly exceeded. Only after two hours have the musicians reached the penultimate song. After the real final number, the audience even asks for an encore. Is this enthusiasm genuine or is it a form of political correctness, I wonder as I leave the hall. In any case, the Holland Festival has also brought in a mixed audience with this concert. That can only be applauded.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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