Simon Shaheen and his quintet of equally appraisable musicians graced us with their exuberant presence in a dynamically enthralling evening concert at Campbell Hall Wednesday Feb. 6, 2013.
Shaheen is currently one of the most — if not the most — well-known and well-versed Arab musicians in America. Born into a deeply musical Palestinian family, Shaheen’s musical involvement started at a young age, first with the oud at the age of five and the violin shortly following. He continued his musical studies throughout college, all the while maintaining his devotion to the classical music of his culture. The dedication that he has put into his music making is apparent not only in the unparalleled virtuosity of his playing, but in the passion with which he conveys his musical expressions.
Shaheen and his musicians exuded a warm and relaxed energy while keeping the audience engaged. What a delight it was to witness the interplay between each voice. With one look, Shaheen would signal the percussionist to switch to a modified rhythm pattern, and another would signal a subtle change in dynamic.
His quintet (which ended up being a septet that evening with the inclusion of Shaheen’s relative), consisted of two additional oud players, a santur (hammer dulcimer) player who also sang on some numbers, the aforementioned percussionist, a woodwind instrumentalist and Simon Shaheen on the oud and violin. They presented themselves as a very distinguished group, set up in a neat semi-circle and dressed in formal black and white attire. However, they were not intimidating or detached at all, sharing smiles and charming the small but attentive audience.
The group played some tunes that are well-known in the Arab world, but incorporated a large amount of improvisatory segments in which each musician would take a solo. Each member was highly competent, giving us great dynamic variation and tastefully flowery ornamentation. While one musician soloed, the others provided a rich and supportive foundation for the soloist without losing momentum by continuing to seriously take their part in the collective effort. There was also a great deal of musical play between the members, with musical statements being tossed back and forth; the players oftentimes finished each others’ sentences. The group would then conjoin into a collective force and surge with energy to a bold and bright finish. If ensemble music can be likened to a conversation, this was a high night of captivating conversation between enthusiastic friends.
One of the most touching moments in the concert for me was the violin solo that Shaheen gave. He stepped out in front of the microphone, thus physically creating a closer and more intimate space with the audience. After saying a few words, he presented to us a riveting and achingly gorgeous solo improvisation. His dexterity and technicality was jaw-dropping, but what was even more exciting was the passion and emotion from which he conjured such musicality. He performed with such personality, bringing out a Middle Eastern flavor on the Western classical instrument, while still humoring us with some Western classical licks. He communicated so convincingly and intentionally that his music was not separate from him; he was not just playing music but breathing it alive.