The Afghan Youth Orchestra Shifts the Paradigm at Carnegie Hall
With a nod and a grin to Astor Piazzolla and Ravi Shankar, last night the Afghan Youth Orchestra mixed and mingled canonical western classics with material from their native land which, evidenced by the thunderous response from the expat contingent of what appeared to be a sold-out Carnegie Hall crowd, is equally iconic where they come from. The highlight of their US debut was William Harvey’s mashup of Vivaldi with traditional Afghani themes. As he did throughout the concert, Harvey conducted his jaunty, irresistibly iconoclastic arangement, The Four Seasons of Afghanistan, from memory. Any untightness – this was a student performance, after all – was rendered meaningless by the sheer fun the ensemble had with it. Voicing the opening parts of the suite in turn on rubab and tanbur lutes and ghichak fiddle added both surrealism and humor, balanced by alternately rousing and rapt Afghani folk interludes, most of them brief and succinct with the exception of an interminable sitar improvisation midway through. A buzz of excitement was in the air: who was going to get the next introduction or carry the next famous motif? Trumpeter James Herzog wowed the crowd by unleashing a long, sustained pedal note via circular breathing; percussionist Norma Ferreira spun perfect cut-glass ripples from her xylophone, getting some of the juiciest passages. And the sight of young Afghani women onstage playing instruments, their faces unveiled, was even more delightfully radical than the music.
It wasn’t long ago that what they were doing here would have earned them a death sentence back home (and to be truthful, still might in more backwater areas). But to see how far the Kabul-based Afghan National Institute of Music’s showcase group has come in the years since the organization’s revival in 2001, following years of inactivity and Taliban persecution, was heartwarming to the extreme. Pianist Said Elham Fanous teamed up with violinist Mikail Simonyan for an almost nonchalantly fluid, unselfconsciously haunting take of a Chopin nocturne. A litte bit later, the whole ensemble, joined by members of the Scarsdale High School Orchestra, romped through the Ravel Bolero, lutes and native fiddles and sitar and sarod joining in the fun just as with the Vivaldi as Harvey took it higher and higher.
Pioneering third-stream Afghani composer Salim Sarmast’s arrangement of the catchy, pulsing folk song Shakoko Jan, which served as both closer and encore, was one example of how ably this group and its leaders – including Ahmad Sarmast, the composer’s son – are able to merge traditions which differ in virtually all aspects including the scales employed by the instruments. The concert’s pensively anthemic opening theme – another Salim Sarmast chart – quickly established a visceral sense of teamwork and camaraderie among the ensemble. There were also brief interludes of folk themes, including a mini-raga highlighting sitar and sarod. Other instances revealed the interpolation of non-western modes to be a work in progress. As the arabesques built toward the conclusion of the Bolero, this worked like a charm. There were also places where the overtones of the sitars or the microtones of the ghichaks contrasted jarringly against western intervals. Sometimes it seemed to be intentional, a hair-raisingly effective device; elsewhere, it just sounded out of tune. Anyone who’s tried to bridge the gap between two dissimilar musical cultures has to grapple with the often minute distinction between paradigm shift and pitfall. This concert revealed this talented young ensemble to be as well-suited to such a challenge as anyone could possibly want.
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