There is something captivating and mysterious about the timbre of a clarinet. It's like the gazelle of woodwinds, supple and graceful, its sonic quality more subdued than its brassy siblings, yet more rich and distinctive.
In the hands of Kinan Azmeh, the clarinet becomes even more hypnotic. The soloist and composer generally works within a classical, jazz, and Arabic musical framework, crossing and melding qualities, incorporating new elements and influences (like Indian rhythmic structures) as he goes.
He'd rather not be categorized, however, because he doesn't believe the lines between genres actually exist. "In all my work, I've tried to promote the idea that music is a continuum," he says. The vocabulary used to describe music varies from culture to culture, he explains, but at its heart, music is just a means of expressing ideas or emotions that are too complex to convey with words.
There is one consistent element in most of what he does: "I love confusing people, myself included, about what is composed and what is improvised. It comes from my belief that some of the best composed music is music that sounds really spontaneous and feels natural, as if it is improvised, and some of the best improvisations are the ones that sound structured and have a clear form, as if they were composed."
He says improvisation is something that was missing in his academic training. "But it's the thing that I actually enjoy doing the most in my life as a professional musician." It's not a new notion. "We know Mozart as a composer, and also we know that he played several instruments and he conducted and everything, but people forget to mention that he was an improviser, too. And for me, it's something that is important to remember, that this has always been the tradition."
Azmeh has been playing clarinet for more than three decades, studying in his native Damascus, Syria, and then in New York City (graduate work at Juilliard, doctorate from the City University of New York). He's also scored films and contributed to multidisciplinary projects (like his audiovisual performances with Syrian American artist Kevork Mourad) and toured with a range of artists, most notably Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble.
For his new clarinet concerto—which has its world premiere with Seattle Symphony on February 6 at Benaroya Hall, an evening during which he will also perform with the Silk Road Ensemble—Azmeh explains that both its emotional and musical content are connected to his association with the symphony. This connection started when President Trump's first Muslim-country travel ban left him stranded in Beirut in February of 2017. Seattle Symphony was the first institution to reach out to him upon his return to the United States, via an invitation to perform in the Music Beyond Borders: Voices from the Seven event.
He says it was very meaningful, this small gesture of solidarity. "And it moved me, how people sometimes make a statement about something though they are not directly affected by it. I think that's what really defines activism in a way, when you are advocating for something that actually doesn't affect your personal life."
His new composition leaves two openings for optional improvised solos, what he calls "windows of excitement," where, if an instrumentalist wants to contribute more, "then you open that window and the form of the piece becomes more flexible."
He'll join Silk Road Ensemble for the rest of the program. "For me, it's like the worlds colliding in a very positive way, that concert. Because I'm playing with Seattle Symphony, which I really love, and then with Silk Road, which is my family, a family away from my family. Merging all these elements together is going to be wonderful."