By Scott MacClelland
TO CELEBRATE THE 30TH ANNIVERSARY of Youth Music Monterey’s founding, conductor Farkhad Khudyev delivered another YMM miracle. It ‘transcended’ on Sunday afternoon at Sunset Center in a program dubbed Eclectic Delight. YMM’s newly constituted Junior Youth Orchestra took the first half—each new school year student musicians move up to the senior Honors Orchestra with young talent freshening the junior ensemble—while the Honors Orchestra on this occasion gave the world premiere of a 25-minute concerto for traditional Azeri instruments, including their virtuoso soloists, and symphonic orchestra.
Khudyev spoke in detail ahead of the concerto, completed early this year by composer/pianist Abuzar Manafzade (born 1990), and not least rightly credited the YMM administrative team for putting together a highly complex effort to make this premiere possible. Representatives from the Azerbaijan Consulate in Los Angeles were on hand among the sell-out audience.
The Junior Youth Orchestra began the concert playing original editions of the Hungarian March from Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust, the first movement of a cello concerto composed in 1760 by John Garth (1721-1810), berceuse and finale from Stravinsky’s Firebird and Slavonic Dance in A-flat by Dvořák. Soloist in the Garth was 12-year-old Hong Kong-born Katrina Yang Bauer who played with remarkable confidence for a musician cast into the spotlight at such a young age. For the Stravinsky, Khudyev showed why his professional opportunities are rapidly expanding; he shushed the strings down to a gripping pianississimo at the end of the berceuse. Few professional orchestra conductors demonstrate such faith in their instincts and, more important, their musicians. (Harpist Tara Ragsdale-Cronin’s name was left out of the printed program; she made important contributions to both the Junior Youth and Honors Orchestra’s halves of the program.)
The Honors Orchestra began its half of the concert with Jubilee from Symphonic Sketches by George Whitefield Chadwick, an early 20th century master composer of the generation before Charles Ives. Chadwick was a first-rate musician. I hope Khudyev will revisit his Symphonic Sketches again in future YMM programs.
A 1990 Russian postage stamp honoring folk instruments of Azerbaijan.
Manafzade’s concerto featured the young balaban virtuoso Nijat Masimov and naghara master Natig Shirinov, with the composer at the piano. The balaban is an ancient, soft-spoken wooden flute that uses a double reed, like an oboe. And like an oboe, in Azeri (and other Caucasus nations) it invites the technique of circular breathing—air pressure applied from the cheeks at the same time the nose draws fresh air into the lungs—allowing for seemingly endless melodies. Its tone is quite mellow, lacking any sharp edges, but extremely expressive and improvisational in the folk style. (Here it was amplified given a full orchestra powering up from behind.) In Shirinov’s case, he played on three different hand drums, plus two more played with sticks. His brilliant virtuoso improvisation at the end of the first of the concerto’s two movements ignited a spontaneous eruption of audience cheers and applause, until Farkhad signaled by hand that there was another movement to go. At the piano, Manafzade played a passage that was muted, probably by a strip of leather on the strings that imitated an Azeri lute.
The piece itself alternated between haunting romantic melodies of late 19th century character and vigorous dance passages in 3/4 and 4/4 (or maybe 2/4) time. The orchestral music was plainly tonal while the folk instruments were released into traditional minor scales. Overall, the concerto made a vivid impression thanks to the composer’s skill at exploiting the full range of colors among the winds and brass. To enormous acclaim by the audience, the three solo artists served up an improvised encore, once again widely cheered. A great fumble of bouquets, for the artists but quickly handed off to the orchestra musicians, specially the ladies, had everyone laughing. I suspect the composer will want to make some revisions to his composed score, but for the audience it was a clear winner.
Earlier in the week, on Wednesday, the three solo artists performed a program at Hidden Valley called Ancient Fire. While I didn’t attend it, I did understand the title. In and around Baku natural gas leaks to the surface and burns constantly. In a recent travel feature from CNN Travel, I found this fascinating description:
“This fire has burned 4,000 years and never stopped,” says Aliyeva Rahila. “Even the rain coming here, snow, wind — it never stops burning.” Tall flames dance restlessly across a 10-meter stretch of hillside, making a hot day even hotter. This is Yanar Dag—meaning ‘burning mountainside’–on Azerbaijan’s Absheron Peninsula, where Rahila works as a tour guide. A side effect of the country’s plentiful natural gas reserves, which sometimes leak to the surface, Yanar Dag is one of several spontaneously occurring fires to have fascinated and frightened travelers to Azerbaijan over the millennia. Venetian explorer Marco Polo wrote of the mysterious phenomena when he passed through the country in the 13th century. Other Silk Road merchants brought news of the flames as they would travel to other lands. It’s why the country earned the moniker the ‘land of fire.’”
Photo: Nijat Masimov, balaban, with conductor Farkhad Khudyev, by Ian Martin, Youth Music Monterey