Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Syrian clarinetist/composer Kinan Azmeh makes two Providence appearances

Kinan Azmeh. Photograph Connie Tsang

Kinan Azmeh. Photograph Connie Tsang

Kinan Azmeh has many stories. 

Stories of his clarinet playing. Stories of his composing. Of his musical collaborations—like Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. 

Some of his stories are harrowing. About life in his native Syria, and how he left Damascus in 1992 to study in the U.S. About 2017’s travel ban, which stranded him for a brief, terrifying time, without any place to go. About the seemingly unsolvable problems in his home country, which has been a war zone for too much of his life.

Azmeh comes to Providence next week to share many of these stories. In a weeklong residency beginning Feb. 26 with Community MusicWorks, Azmeh will join discussion groups and give community concerts. On March 7 and 8, Azmeh will perform his Clarinet Concerto, which was given its world premiere earlier this month, with the Brown University Orchestra. 

Both the residency and the concerts will bring some insight into the world of this fascinating Syrian musician, who was recruited because of his clarinet virtuosity to come to the United States when he was 16. He has stayed to finish his doctorate, and then become a tremendously successful musician. The path hasn’t always been easy.

There are 12 million people forced from their homes in Syria—more than half the population. Most are still in Syria, caught in the war zone. Many of them made it to Turkey, some to Jordan or Lebanon. Some have come to the Providence area.

Azmeh has been more fortunate than most Syrians. He lives in New York City, and has his green card. He composes prolifically, and performs in some of the world’s finest venues. He’s part of the brilliant Silk Road network, and won a Grammy with that group in 2016. He’s had performances of his own compositions with orchestras all around the world. He  performs in multiple ensembles, and leads his own Kinan Azmeh CityBand.

Some problems Azmeh has faced have come from this country, not his native country. When the president first initiated the travel ban in January, 2017, Azmeh was performing in Europe. “I had been in America for 16 years by then,” he said, “I have a green card.” But for a few terrifying days—until the ban was struck down in the courts—he was in limbo. 

Azmeh has been traveling freely since then—and he does travel frequently. Appearances in Europe, recording sessions on the East Coast, and the recent appearance with the Seattle Symphony. The concerns of the ban are largely behind him—or so he says, keeping an optimistic outlook. “You put it in relation to what other people are going through,” he says of his attitude. “The ban did effect me, briefly, two years ago. In some ways people took it out of proportion. I was blocked for a while, yes, but you keep these things in perspective.”

The Seattle premiere of the Clarinet Concerto—earlier this month—was a landmark for Azmeh. “They invited me there right after the travel ban,” he says of the orchestra. “They had a concert in 2017, Music Without Borders, which I was part of. And they asked for this concerto commission too. From the get-go I felt like part of that community. This concert had great emotional value.”

The Seattle Symphony has exclusive rights to the concerto, but waived them so that Azmeh could perform with the Brown orchestra. Azmeh’s music often calls for improvising—a skill not normally associated with classical musicians. The Clarinet Concerto is different than his usual style, composed throughout, in one continuous movement that also has members of the orchestra “singing” a few notes in the closing lullaby section.

“I wrote the piece so I could share it with players who are not used to improvising,” he says. “Something I would have fun playing, and that the orchestra would have fun playing.” 

The CMW residency involves multiple free performances, and discussions, including a panel called Music in Times of Conflict, on Feb. 28 at Brown’s Grant Recital Hall. The event is jointly presented by CMW and the Providence Public Library, and features Azmeh and fellow composer Kareem Roustom, along representatives of the Dorcas International Institute, which has helped exiled Syrians settle in the area.

“It’s not limited to Syria,” he says. “I hope we talk about Syria in connection with the arts, and art in the time of conflict. For me this is the most meaningful part, talking to people who don’t usually have access to the music.”

Azmeh’s journey so far has taken him from war zones to creative success to political challenges. His music—composing and performing—remains a constant.

“As an artist, you keep going,” he says. “Culture might be the only survivor of violent times.”

Syrian clarinetist/composer Kinan Azmeh comes to Providence’s Community MusicWorks for a residency that includes concerts and discussions. All events are free; (617) 970-4794 or communitymusicworks.org. Azmeh also performs his own Clarinet Concerto with the Brown University Orchestra, March 7 and 8. Both concerts are free. (401)863-3234 or brown.edu/academics/music.

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