Is it jazz, classical, Western, Eastern? Simon Shaheen defies labels

Simon Shaheen

Simon Shaheen (April 19, 2013)

For more than three decades, the Palestinian oud virtuoso Simon Shaheen has relentlessly championed his soft-spoken instrument across America and beyond.

He has penned solo works, pieces for oud with wind quintet and string quartet and compositions for his jazz-tinged band Qantara. And he has brought traditional Arabic music to listeners who otherwise wouldn't have encountered it, with his Near Eastern Music Ensemble.

But Shaheen has made perhaps his boldest gesture along these genre-crossing lines by composing a Concerto for Oud and Orchestra in C Minor, which will receive its Chicago-area premiere Friday at the Harris Theater and Saturday at North Central College's Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville, in a performance featuring Shaheen and the Chicago Sinfonietta.

The piece sounds and feels like nothing else in the orchestral repertory, its merger of Middle Eastern, Western and jazz methods producing unexpected harmonic, rhythmic and melodic combinations. Better still, the work shows a high level of craft, Shaheen's themes urgently lyrical, his solo passages often technically demanding, his orchestral writing sensitively wrought.

Quite an accomplishment, considering the challenges involved.

"It is very difficult, because I needed to be aware that this as an oud, it's not a piano, it doesn't have the projection of the piano," says Shaheen, noting the hurdles involved in casting the oud alongside so many strings, horns and percussion.

"I had to be careful about the orchestration, and how to manage the symphonic sound on one hand delicately, on the other hand without losing its grand beauty. It was, I would say, a (labor) of a great deal of sensitive balance, where I don't bury either, the orchestra or the oud. It's the opposite: bringing the sonorities of both in a very alive sound."

Judging by the DVD of the performance I watched, Shaheen achieves that, his flourishes on oud dovetailing elegantly with commentary from the strings and pulsing rhythms from Western and Arabic percussion.

But then there's the matter of playing the piece, for Shaheen has written an oud part clearly designed to test the soloist: himself. In lyrical passages, the simplicity of the writing means that Shaheen must make the most of every carefully chosen note. And in bravura sections, he faces the daunting challenge of articulating fast-flying notes while the orchestra also has its say.

Ultimately, the musical weight and virtuosic cadenza of the first movement, the give-and-take between soloist and strings in the second movement and the rhythmic sway and lustrous orchestral writing of the finale suggest that Shaheen's Oud Concerto deserves to be heard widely and often.

Certainly the project represents a high point in Shaheen's long and distinguished career. Born in Tarshiha, a Chrisitian village in the Galilee region of northern Israel, Shaheen graduated from the Academy of Music in Jerusalem in 1978 and came to America two years later for graduate studies at Columbia University and the Manhattan School of Music. Doubly trained on oud and violin, he routinely plays both instruments in concert, merging Eastern and Western musical cultures on each.

But the oud always has been central to his identity as man and musician.

"When I opened my eyes, this was the first instrument in front of me, and when I opened my eyes, the first person playing on this was my father," says Shaheen, referring to Hikmat Shaheen, an admired composer and teacher of Arabic music who placed the oud in his son's hands when Simon was four.

"I experience this instrument with the closest person to my life, and I developed my musicality around this instrument, and then, a year later, on the violin.

"So I think the oud is the closest instrument to my heart."

When Shaheen plays the oud, he's combining at least two distinct ways of making music: contemporary Western composition and ancient Arabic improvisation, which only enhances the appeal of his work. The version of the Concerto that he plays this weekend, then, won't be exactly the same as earlier or future ones – each carries melodic embellishments, turns of phrase and solo passages invented on the spot.

Not what you typically encounter in a modern-day concerto performance.

During rehearsals, "I warn the conductors that this will happen," says Shaheen. "This is beauty, in my view."

In truth, improvisation was long integral to classical music performance, but it mostly expired in 20th century concert practice. In effect, Shaheen helps return these methods to the concert hall with his concerto, a welcome development for anyone who values the spontaneity and risk taking integral to jazz and earlier eras of classical music.

So what does Shaheen do as an encore to writing a major concerto for his beloved oud?

"I have been thinking in the last few months about writing a suite – a suite that will include vocals and instrumentals, and it will use Arabic classical poetry," says Shaheen, who teaches at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and at an annual Arabic Music Retreat at Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. In 1994, he won a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship.

Shaheen says he'll work on the new piece when the current term at Berklee ends. But are American audiences ready for another major oud opus?

"Yes, I would say that when I go and play the oud in cities and towns, people aren't surprised anymore to see the instrument," he says.

A large share of the credit goes to Shaheen himself.

Simon Shaheen and Chicago Sinfonietta
7:30 p.m. Friday at Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph Dr.; 8 p.m. Saturday at Wentz Concert Hall, 171 E. Chicago Ave., Naperville; $26-$50 at the Harris; 312-334-7777; $40-$50 at Wentz; 630-637-7469; chicagosinfonietta.org

Also worth hearing

Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau: Two free thinkers – mandolinist Thile and pianist Mehldau – offer a provocative partnership. 8 p.m. Friday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $27-$41; 312-294-3000 or cso.org

Matt Ulery's Loom. Bassist Ulery achieved a musical breakthrough last year with his recording "By a Little Light," which has taken his work into dark, moody terrain. 9 p.m. Friday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com

Roscoe Mitchell & Mike Reed Duo: Reedist Mitchell and drummer Reed play Chicago's newest and most promising venue for adventurous music. 9:30 p.m. Friday at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave.; $15-$20; constellation-chicago.com

Bobby McFerrin: The one-of-a-kind vocalist performs his "Spirit You All" show. 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $30-$110; 312-294-3000 or cso.org

Victor Goines: A remarkably versatile reedist, Goines plays in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and heads the jazz studies department at Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music, making any performance under his own name a rare and welcome opportunity. 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Room 43, 1043 E. 43d St.; $10; valet parking available; hydeparkjazzsociety.com

To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.

hreich@tribune.com | Twitter @howardreich

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