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Unfrozen Architecture

Young Musicians Delightfully Render Scenes from Native Syria

By Chikako Sassa

staff writer


Killian Hall

March 1, 8 p.m.

Architecture and music proved synergistic when the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT sponsored a performance by five budding Syrian artists, to the delight of an enthusiastic crowd.

In an hour-and-a-half performance, the group, known as Dialogue, deftly combined traditional Arabic music with Western classical traditions, delivering textured overlays of musical traditions as diverse as classical, jazz, pop, and Arabic. The program included nine pieces of the musicians’ original compositions, ranging from a solo improvisation on an oud -- the traditional Middle Eastern lute -- to a jazzy infusion of clarinet, cello, percussion, oud, and soprano. Their young talents increasingly shone through as the performance progressed, culminating in an uplifting contagion of applause, smiles, and contented hearts that filled Killian Hall.

Kinan Azmeh, one of the founding members of the group, believes that any combination of musical instruments can form an ensemble so long as the performers themselves have chemistry. Azmeh’s friendship and musical collaboration with Dima Orsho later caught on to fellow group members Omar Al-Musfi, Essam Rafea, and Kinan Abou-Afach. What began as informal jam sessions with close friends have now developed into a full-fledged ensemble currently on tour in the United States, Germany, and Japan.

The performance opened with “Loquacity” composed by Essam Rafea, a rollicking tune rife with twists, turns, and precipitous peaks of euphoria. The precise execution of cascading notes presented a pleasant introduction to the group’s technical mastery; as the tune ebbed and flowed, at times light as a sun-kissed wind sweeping over a Mediterranean hillside, the musicians’ fingers never faltered.

Throughout the first few compositions, however, the group evinced tentativeness in their musical expression. Perhaps because of their unfamiliarity with the audience and venue, the musicians first exhibited brittle expressions, minimal acknowledgement of applause, and hints of shyness coloring their cheeks. The tentativeness was better masked by the green exuberance of “Loquacity,” where agility and evanescence added to the music. The second piece, “Evening,” proved not so successful. The clarinet’s slow, repetitive notes that formed the core of the tune fell dangerously close to monotony at times. In alternating sequence, each instrument performed lilting solos that vividly depicted a purple twilight and the growing outlines of dark trees against the glimmer of a star, the shadow of a night hawk. Though the tune conveyed the scene in rich detail, “Evening” remained a depiction of evening only, and seemed to lack human characters and their resultant interactions and emotions.

The oud improvisation that followed felt a bit brittle as well. No doubt, Rafea possesses mastery over his oud in a loving way. He cradled his oud, frozen in intimate companionship with his instrument, and produced vaguely familiar but singularly unique melodies following maqam, the Arabic scale system. The audience was still; anticipation hung in the air; and finally, when the last Arabesque tendrils of Rafea’s notes disappeared into space, the audience expressed their appreciation with a resounding applause.

The second to last piece, “Departure,” marked the pinnacle of the performance with a lively plot, a motley crew of characters, and events along the journey that progressed closer and closer to a better, brighter future. The music moved in stages from the initial sorrow at parting, the solemn beginning of a journey, and finally the arrival of the caravan to a vibrant new town under a blazing desert sun. The musicians seemed positively elated at their success, and the audience responded with a resounding and extended applause.

Perhaps the last piece, “Ritual,” dampened the success of “Departure” somewhat. The song’s solemnity invoked a spiritual rite prescribed within a timeless tradition, reiterated over and over in a profane world of ever-changing virtues and loyalties. The composition soon became populated by the chaos of the profane, and reminded us that no ritual was ever the same. Personal quirks and semi-improvisational dialogues between the musicians -- most notably between Azmeh on clarinet and Orsho in voice -- proved resplendent. The concert ended in resounding applause, and it was obvious that Dialogue has successfully communicated their musical talent to the delighted audience.

Saeed Arida and Fuad Alkhoury contributed to this article.