Amorphous, Anomalous: The Knights, Avi Avital & Kinan Azmeh at Rackham
When we hear the word “orchestra,” we usually think of a group of musicians who play classical music. But the trailblazing Brooklyn-based orchestra The Knights -- coming to Rackham Auditorium on Sunday, Nov. 12 courtesy of UMS -- are known for turning the word on its head by challenging orchestral norms and often using untraditional environments (from parks to bars) and repertoire (from avant-gardist Karlheinz Stockhausen to singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens) to connect to a wide range of audiences.
Such a genre-bending, rule-breaking orchestra needs soloists who are just as adventurous, and for this tour, The Knights have teamed up with two superstars of instrumental music, Avi Avital and Kinan Azmeh.
Both Avital, an Israeli mandolin virtuoso, and Azmeh, a celebrated Syrian clarinetist and composer, produce just as diverse and tremendously compelling a repertoire as The Knights, and the combination of these three forces is a treat not to be missed. Their program on Sunday will jump from their unique arrangements of pieces by Purcell, Bach, and Schubert to some of Azmeh’s own compositions, including one he wrote specifically for The Knights, Avital, and himself. They will also feature a piece by Knights co-leader and Silkroad Ensemble member Colin Jacobsen as well as traditional Middle Eastern, Balkan, and klezmer pieces.
I spoke with Avital and Azmeh about their solo work, collaboration with the Knights, and more.
Q: Mr. Azmeh, you are also a celebrated composer, arranger, and improviser; how does your clarinet playing influence the pieces you create and vice versa?
AZMEH: An artist needs to have three things. First, something to say, an idea that you have the urgency of sharing. Second, a tool to say what you want to say -- in my case, it is the clarinet -- and third, the skills to use the tool to say what you want to say. Yes, the clarinet has become my best way to express myself, but it remains a tool. Of course, I am attached to its sound, as I believe it has so many similarities with the human voice -- both in dynamic range and register. It is hard to map out how influences happen but I guess it flows in all directions.
Q: Do you ever play any of your compositions with the Yo-Yo Ma's Silkroad Ensemble? How did you come to be a part of that group?
AZMEH: Yes, I have performed several of my works with the Silkroad Ensemble, mainly my "Ibn Arabi Postlude" and "Wedding," which is the last movement of my "Suite for Improviser and Orchestra." I joined the ensemble in 2012 after the ensemble commissioned David Bruce to write a new work having me in mind for the clarinet part.
Q: Mr. Avital, your teacher in Be’er Sheva, Simcha Nathanson, was a violinist. Of course, the mandolin and the violin are very different, but in many ways, there is not as much of a divide between them as there is between some other stringed instruments. Did Mr. Nathanson’s experience as a violinist change the way he taught you about mandolin?
AVITAL: The fact that he was a violinist and not a mandolinist was my greatest luck; he didn’t teach me how to play the mandolin, rather he taught me how to play music. For him, what I was holding in my hands was almost unimportant. I still feel that when I am playing concerts I nearly forget that I am playing a mandolin.
Q: Much of your work with the mandolin has been to adapt works written for other instruments for your own. Can you talk about what makes a piece worth adapting, and your process for doing it?
AVITAL: When considering an adaptation of a piece, I ask myself one question first: Do I, by playing that piece of music originally written for another instrument, add any value to it by playing it on the mandolin? If I can’t find an answer to that question, I won’t adapt that score. Usually, I can find added value if I can give the listener the opportunity to hear the original piece from a new perspective, a new angle. This works especially well with scores that are very well-known and highly regarded: Bach’s violin sonatas and partitas, Vivaldi’s violin concertos, etc. Audiences usually have a very clear sound in mind with these pieces, so when they suddenly hear the work with a completely different sound, it allows them to listen to the music with a new openness. They hear fresh, different things about a work they already knew very well, and hearing the mandolin played in this context can point their ears in many different directions. I also have to connect to the piece and feel I have something unique to say about it in my own interpretation before I consider adapting a work.
Q: Both of your musical backgrounds and current repertoire seems to draw on many different styles and genres. If you had to classify your music as one genre, or some sort of hybrid, how would you describe it?
AZMEH: I simply don't describe it. Making art is an act of freedom, and I would like to give that freedom to the listener to decide what he/she hears. I simply play what I like without thinking of the genre. I invite the listener to come with open mind and ears.
AVITAL: As a mandolin player, I had the privilege of not having a specific route to follow; unlike young violinists or pianists, I didn’t have a list of repertoire to cover, masters to emulate or any tradition in regard to the programs I could present. Because I am curious by nature and have an innate drive to constantly create something new, this lack of scheduled expectations has been a complete gift. I am also quite interested in the spectrum of possibility by many different musical genres and dialects, and I have had the fortune of integrating these interests into my concert programs and albums. I suppose my music could be classified as a hybrid of baroque, contemporary, art, and folk music.
Q: How did this collaboration with each other and with The Knights come about? Before this series of shows, had you worked with each other at all?
AZMEH: I have known The Knights since they started; many of its members are dear friends. We first collaborated back in 2008 in New York. I continue to be a friend and a great fan of what they do. Avi and I met back in 2012 in Boston through a workshop with the Silkroad Ensemble to rehearse a newly commissioned piece by British composer David Bruce, which was written for the Silkroad Ensemble having myself and Avi in mind for the two solo parts.
AVITAL: I’ve known Kinan for many years from the New York music scene; I’ve had the pleasure to hear him in concert several times and I’ve even played his music. This will be our first time collaborating on stage together, and I’m really looking forward to playing with him.
Q: What can you tell us about this concert’s eclectic mix of material?
AVITAL: One thing I believe that Kinan, The Knights, and myself share in common is a vision about what is a concert experience of today, and a commitment to cultivating a poetic, inspiring experience for the audience. One has to assume that the audience not only is one click away from to the entire world of music but that even on the day of a concert they have already been inundated with varied sounds and musical experiences -- in the car, in elevators and waiting rooms, at the office, etc. Whether one likes it or not, exposure to diverse and contrasting genres is an everyday experience, and that means our cultural palate is ever-evolving. As musicians, we have these same experiences, but we also have the means to integrate this eclecticism in our own concert visions if we chose to do so, and I believe these concerts reflect that vision.
AZMEH: This concert truly reflects my views about music as a continuum. Blurring the lines between the improvised and the composed in all different genres has been at the heart of how I compose and how I play for many years. I do tend to think of music without categories, and I do believe this program reflects that.
Q: You’ve both played music in a number of different kinds of groups. What is it like to work with The Knights?
AVITAL: I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for a long time. I have known the group and many of its individual players from my time spent in New York, and they have been on the top of my wishlist for years. Working with The Knights is as creative, open and refreshing as I’ve always imagined.
AZMEH: This is not a conventional orchestra; I see The Knights as a group of players, thinkers, soloists, and friends who enjoy communicating with their instruments. Needless to say, making music with them is really exciting!
Q: What pieces are you most excited to share with us on November 12?
AZMEH: I am not a fan of isolating events from one big arc, which is the concert. But I have to say that I am particularly excited about my new work "Concertino Grosso," which is receiving its world premiere during this tour.
AVITAL: It’s really hard to choose one; the main piece I’m performing is Bach’s D minor concerto, which was originally written for keyboard. I have been playing this work for a number of years and it’s a piece to which I feel deeply attached. I’m also looking forward to collaborating with Kinan. There are many improvisational elements to the pieces we will be performing together, which means every night will bring something new.
Emily Slomovits is an Ann Arbor freelance musician, theater artist, and writer. She plays music with her father and uncle (aka Gemini) and others, is a member of Spinning Dot Theatre, and has performed with The Encore Musical Theatre Company, Performance Network, and Wild Swan Theater.
The Knights, Avi Avital, and Kinan Azmeh perform at Rackham Auditorium, 915 E. Washington St., Ann Arbor, on Sunday, Nov. 12 at 4 pm. For tickets and more information, visit ums.org.