These days, when you hear news reports about the daunting challenges facing the arts and culture world, it’s typically problems of the financial sort being discussed. For the Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, who plays Middle Eastern music with his Kinan Azmeh Quartet tonight at St. Peter’s Church, it’s just one of many challenges he faces. (He wrote a song, “Airports,” as a response to his experience of international traveling with a Syrian passport.) Azmeh, born in Damascus in 1976, trained in Damascus and at Juilliard; he moves fluidly between classical, jazz, and traditional Syrian styles, and he performs frequently in the Middle East and in the West. His September 2008 performance at Merkin Hall got a rave review from Vivien Schweitzer in The New York Times. Azmeh has just come from Washington, D.C., where he was one of many artists to perform in “Arabesque,” the Kennedy Center’s three-week theater/dance/music festival celebrating Arab culture.
This week’s concert, “Music for Peace,” is part of a “Day for Peace” that includes poetry and prayers and is presented by Musicians For Harmony, Saint Peter’s Church, and Midtown Arts Common. The concert is a fundraiser for the Iraqi Student Project, which helps young Iraqi students get an education at American colleges; pianist Karam Salem, an Indiana University student sponsored by ISP, will also perform Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 31, at the concert. The peace day was timed to mark the sixth anniversary of the war in Iraq.
The morning of the concert, I received a note from Allegra Klein, the founder of Musicians for Harmony, passing along encouraging news from Karim Wasfi, the chief conductor-director of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. (Wasfi is not only the INSO’s conductor-director, he also is its “political-cultural advisor.”) The news: the INSO had added five appearances to its March-April 2009 schedule at a variety of venues in Iraq. Even better, says Klein, “they clearly feel safe enough to announce the times AND locations of their concerts well in advance.” That orchestra will be playing music of Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Verdi, Brahms, Mozart, and Wagner, all of which can be heard on a regular basis at concerts in New York. The “safe enough” comment, however, is a pretty graphic reminder of the difference between going to a concert in Baghdad and going to a concert in New York.
Photo of Kinan Azmeh by Michael T. Luongo