Monday, April 4, 2016

Pianist Marouan Benabdallah performs works of composers from the Arab world and Saint-Saens' "Africa"

Marouan Benabdallah (
“Arabesque” was the title of a recital given by pianist Marouan Benabdallah at the American Colony Hotel, Jerusalem, on April 1st 2016. The American Colony Hotel concert series is managed by Ms. Petra Klose of K und K Wien (Vienna). Mr. Thomas Brugnatelli, manager of the ACH, introduced the artist and welcomed guests assembled in the Pasha Room. The “Arabesque” concert series is the result of Banabdallah’s personal search for piano works written by composers from the Arab world.  In his search for this repertoire, the artist has discovered works by some 70 composers from almost all Arab countries and has selected what he considers the best of them to present to the public.  Many of the pieces have not been published or recorded; receiving permission to perform works of living composers has not always been an easy task for the artist. Common to composers of the works we heard at this recital is the fact that all come from Arab countries but have spent time in- or have relocated to Europe or the USA. What remains not common to them is their difference of background. Benabdallah says the project is “about mutual discovery”, both for listeners in Arab countries and for those in the western world and that it is “in our interest to foster better understanding and dialogue between cultures and people”.

Born 1982 in Rabat, Morocco to a Moroccan physicist father and a Hungarian musician mother (his first teacher), Marouan Benabdallah moved to Budapest at age 13 to pursue his musical studies at the Bela Bartok Conservatory and the Franz Liszt Academy. His international career began in 2003 following success in both the Hungarian Radio Piano Competition and the Andorra Grand Prize. He made his Carnegie Hal- and Kennedy Center debuts in 2011. Although describing himself as an “heir to the great Hungarian musical tradition”, Marouan Benabdallah finds himself as comfortable with music of Arab classical composers as with conventional European concert repertoire. As to the works we heard, they all formed a meeting point for music of both worlds.

The recital opened with “La nuit de destin” (Night of Destiny) by Syrian-born composer, conductor and teacher Dia Succari (1938-2010). At age 15, Succari went to study at the Paris Conservatoire (one of his composition teachers was Olivier Messiaen), where he remained, becoming a professor at three institutions. Via an effective presentation of western writing with some Impressionistic associations, then intense, playing of taksim (melodic improvisation) passages suggestive of oriental plucked instruments, the piece evoked the atmosphere of a night of prayer and spiritual illumination in timbres that were both exotic and fervent. Benabdallah drew the listener’s attention to the fact that Succari, a Maronite, had written a work celebrating the holiest night of Ramadan.

Born in Algeria in 1975, instrumentalist, composer, musicologist and teacher Salim Dada has spent time in Italy and France; his music has been referred to as a “message of peace and dialogue between the Arab-Muslim world and Europe”. Benabdallah’s performance contrasted the character of two of Dada’s “Algerian Miniatures” (2009) – the first a traditional melody existing hand-in-hand with western harmony, the second a virtuosic, fiery dance bristling with splendid piano textures. Zad Moultaka (b.1967), another member of the younger generation of composers that straddles two worlds, is both Lebanese and French, both pianist and composer, also a painter. In 1993, he terminated a prestigious piano solo career in order to focus on composition, grappling with the question of how to combine western compositional techniques with elements of Arabic music stemming from oral tradition and where to find within this his own musical “voice”. Benabdallah’s skilful performance of “Two Mouwashahs” (both an Arabic poetic form and a secular musical genre) used different effects - strumming on the piano strings, playing melodic passages on the strings, holding a damper almost down to create a muted effect – as he presented the composer’s fast flow of ideas, the ornamented octaves characteristic of Arabic music, canons etc. in a richly “orchestrated” soundscape.

One of the most sophisticated and frequently-heard voices of his generation, Mohammed Fairouz (b.1985), known for his cosmopolitanism and involvement in social issues, has spoken of himself as “obsessed with text”. His work of 2013 “El Male Rachamim” (God, full of mercy), three sections of which were played by Benabdallah, takes its name from a poem by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and, in particular, from the Jewish funeral prayer that accompanies the ascension of the soul. The composer dedicated the work to the memory of Hungarian Jewish composer György Ligeti, who had been one of his teachers. The pianist gave poignant and profound expression to the work’s tenebrous, plangent and sometimes indignant emotional context, to evoking the cantor’s beseeching voice singing the prayer and to the piece’s prayerful intimacy; the second section’s insistence and restless mood were followed by the vigorous scoring and embellishment of the hugely demanding third movement.

Composer, arranger, pianist and teacher Boghos Gelalian (1927-2011) resided in Beirut, Lebanon. Born in Alexandrette (then Syria), he grew up in a community of survivors of the Armenian genocide, hearing Armenian and Turkish music but receiving a classical, western music education.  His music is conspicuous for his use of both Armenian and middle eastern modes and is a reminder of his familiarity with European avant-garde music, but it also reveals his personal signature style. Gelalian received recognition for his contribution to Lebanese cultural life. Marouan Benabdallah performed Gelalian’s “Canzona e Toccata”, taking his listeners into the brooding mood of the Canzona, with its coherent, soul-searching coupling of modal and atonal elements, to be followed by the intense, mesmerizing and almost frenzied Toccata, the pianist’s forging of its spiralling, relentless chromatic strands never concealing the piece’s melodic content.

Moroccan composer and musicologist Nabil Benabdeljalil (b.1972) studied composition with Ivan Fedele at the Strasbourg Conservatory. His doctoral dissertation there (2007) was on heterophony in music of the 20th century. Marouan Benabdallah’s reading of two Nocturnes of Benabdeljalil highlighted the strong influence of Chopin’s piano music on the composer as he embraced their nostalgic, oriental-tinted melodies played to lush, caressing and rhapsodic Chopanesque accompaniments.

The recital ended with Benabdallah’s own arrangement of Camille Saint-Saëns’ (1835-1921) most colourful concertante work, the “Africa” Fantasy opus 89 (1891), a version in which Benabdallah has combined orchestral- and piano roles (not to be confused with the composer’s own one-piano version.) Saint-Saëns’ study of North African music is apparent here (a self-fashioned cosmopolitan, he collected much indigenous music from the region) using themes of songs and dances from Egypt and Algeria; the climax of the piece is based on a Tunisian folk tune. In this rarely performed single-movement work, a flashy, virtuoso piece reflecting vistas of the orient, Benabdallah negotiated the work’s changes of mood, key and tempo, carrying it off with effortless pizzazz.

Marouan Benabdallah communicates easily with his audience. The artist’s fresh, brilliant and powerful technique, his sensitive attention to detail and rich palette of piano timbres, together with his natural curiosity, invite the listener to discover this sophisticated and unique repertoire together with him.

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