Friday , April 19 2024
Steven Mercurio leads the Orchestra of St. Luke's in AMP at 10: A New York Celebration with soloist Sepideh Raissadat
Steven Mercurio leads the Orchestra of St. Luke's in AMP at 10: A New York Celebration with soloist Sepideh Raissadat, March 28, 2024 (photo by Chris Lee)

Concert Review: Azrieli Music Prizes at 10: A New York Celebration

The Azrieli Music Prizes in composition come out of Canada, and in 2022 were awarded to composers from that country and Israel. All three composers, Iman Habibi, Aharon Harlap, and Rita Ueda, were among the enthusiastic audience at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall on Thursday night to hear the New York premieres of their works.

Judeo-Persian Storytelling

The concert featured the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and soloists conducted by Steven Mercurio. It began with the 2022 Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music. This is awarded to the composer who proposes a response to the question “What Is Jewish Music?” that “displays the utmost artistry, technical mastery and professional expertise.”

To fulfill this commission, Iranian-Canadian composer and pianist Iman Habibi composed Shāhīn-nāmeh, a a song cycle for voice and orchestra. It’s based on texts by 14th-century Judeo-Persian poet Shahin Shirazi relating the biblical story of the book of Esther. The composer aimed to show the close affinity between Persians and Jews that has existed through history, dating back to the 6th century BCE. To this end, Habibi mastered the Judeo-Persian language of 700 years ago so that he could translate Shirazi into modern-day Persian to create the libretto.

To realize the piece on this occasion, he and the orchestra had an ideal collaborator in singer and setar player Sepideh Raissadat.

Persian Setar
A Persian setar. Photo credit: Shabdiz at English Wikipedia, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The piece began with a cinematic introductory section, full of portent, with organ-like chords alternating with fanfares. Then, at once conversational and dramatic, Raissadat’s buttery-golden vocals sailed ululating above sustained chords and faint instrumental whisperings and chimes, all orchestrated gorgeously.

The five-movement sequence moved on to a dissonant yet somehow calming drone from the woodwinds and brass. Amid the drone, a plaintive melody from piano and harp arose, later passing to the strings, as Raissadat sang the tale, improvising the melody in places. At first I wished for printed lyrics with a translation so I could follow. But the music was so compelling I was ultimately glad I didn’t have the distraction of trying to follow along, and could simply lose myself in the sound.

Raissadat switched from vocals to setar, a traditional Persian lute on which she is a virtuoso, for an interlude. The lush sound seemed magical emanating from such a humble-looking instrument.

Beyond Human

The program went both international and interspecies with Rita Ueda’s Birds Calling…from the Canada in You, a concerto for suona (a double-reed horn that has been called “China’s loudest instrument”), sheng (a Chinese reed-and-pipe instrument), and shō (a Japanese mouth organ).

Ueda observed that classical composers who have incorporated songs from the bird world into their music had never known the songs of Canadian birds. So she went all-out to work the songs of 450 bird species of Canada into her realization of the Azrieli Commission for Canadian Music.

The performance was more than a piece of music; it was a four-dimensional event, a universe of delight, drama, and humor. With the strings and percussion on the stage, the winds were positioned in the balcony and boxes, creating a surround-sound effect. Progressing without rhythm and form, the piece evoked sounds from nature in a concentrated, somewhat surreal way.

It opened with subtle percussion, perhaps suggesting dawn with a few birds waking up to sing against faint background sounds – a quiet woods? A grassy plain? Imagery is up to the listener, I think. In any case it was more soundscape than structure. Zhongxi Wu and Naomi Sato wafted onto the stage playing, respectively, sheng and shō, mouth organs in different registers. Conductor Steven Mercurio spent much of the time on the podium looking bemused, even affecting a demeanor I would describe as pleasantly nonplussed.

Humorous interjections and seeming randomness developed into a mass cacophony. Wu switched to his main instrument for the piece, the suona, powerful enough to win a duel with the cymbal player.

Steven Mercurio leads the Orchestra of St. Luke's in AMP at 10:  A New York Celebration with soloists Sharon Azrieli, Sepideh Raissadat, Naomi Sato and Zhongxi Wu performing works by composers Iman Habibi, Aharon Harlap and Rita Ueda at Alice Tully Hall, 3/28/2024. Photo by Chris Lee
Photo by Chris Lee

Effective as Wu and his suona were at simulating the calls of the louder birds, the performance dwelled on the instrument for too long – which was my only complaint about this powerfully enveloping and quite fun performance. Indeed the spirit it evoked in the audience was so positive that I had to remind myself of what Ueda had said in a recent interview: that her compositional process had been diverted by disturbing events of 2022. The discovery of unmarked graves at sites of the “residential schools” where so many of Canada’s Indigenous children were taken, the truckers’ convoy protests against public health measures, and “the rise in gun violence, hate crimes, and general divisiveness in communities” that “really shook my belief in Canadian society” were all on her mind.

One loud, distinct and lonely call – a loon? – drifted from one side of the balcony to another. Was this a keening for distress and divisiveness on the earth below?

Whatever the specifics, the piece established in this New Yorker’s memory a firm place for Rita Ueda as an artistic avatar of environmental consciousness – and a composer of tremendous vision.

Psalms of Comfort

By comparison, Aharon Harlap’s contribution to the program felt predictable. Harlap received the Azrieli Prize for Jewish Music in 2022 for his five-movement cycle Out of the Depths Have I Cried unto Thee, O Lord, a setting of Psalms for soprano and orchestra. Mercurio and soloist Sharon Azrieli conveyed the music with vitality and skill. But overall it failed to hold my interest.

The first movement is built around an inherently tense flatted-fifth interval punching above a sturdy slow-motion common-time beat. A roiling opening to the second movement develops into a stolid, almost funereal waltz. An intriguing slow-motion hunting call grounds the third, while the lilting fourth offers a comforting bath of sound. Elements of the earlier movements return for the finale. But despite the music’s structural integrity, the performance lacked momentum. Mr. Harlap has had a long and notable career. One got the impression he was using tropes and effects that he can deploy on command – in this case, perhaps, more methodically than truly inspired.

It was the music of Iman Hababi and Rita Ueda that created a lasting impression and testified to the boundless creativity the Azrieli Foundation continues to bring into focus year after year.

Azrieli Music Prizes at 10 in NYC
Photo by Chris Lee

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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