The following review is taken from the Spring 2023 issue of Clarinet & Saxophone magazine. For more reviews, news, and features from the single-reed world, join to receive our quarterly magazine and other membership benefits.

A Place to Call Home , Kinan Azmeh
(UK Premiere)
Kinan Azmeh (clarinet), Enrique Mazzola, London Philharmonic Orchestra
Royal Festival Hall, London
18 January 2023

Kinan Azmeh blows gently into the mouthpiece. The opening to his clarinet concerto is barely audible. Breath passes through the instrument, waking the music, stirring it as though from a deep slumber; like Aslan ushering life back to the creatures cast into stone by Narnia’s white witch. The London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) is attentive to Azmeh’s tiny movements, collectively watching conductor Enrique Mazzola as he eases the composer-soloist through the extended pianissimo trills into figurative melodies that are passed around the orchestra.

In his accompanying programme notes, Azmeh writes that the music is “free from any programmatic or autobiographical information”, observing that “all I wanted was to write a piece that would enjoy a lot of freedom”. Although the 2018 concerto may not have a specific narrative arc, it is impossible to ignore the context of its creation, and the impact that has on the musical structure. The piece was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in 2017, the year that the then-president Donald Trump issued his notorious travel bans, preventing people from majority-Muslim countries from entering the US. This included Syria-born Azmeh who, after performing in Europe – including at Hamburg’s newly opened Elbphilharmonie – found himself temporarily unable to return home to New York.

From its understated opening, the clarinet concerto is powerful in its quietness. Barely moving from the middle register, Azmeh’s music has a distinctive tonality, enhanced by deep vibrato – the breathy texture is underlined by a repetitive one-note figure in the cellos. The work is not strictly divided into movements – everything about the concerto symbolises freedom, from use of space and expression to its structure – but there are three clear sections. After a lengthy introduction there’s a lullaby. Azmeh stretches delicate phrases, occasionally breaking out into glittering virtuosity. This, like other parts of the concerto, has an improvisatory feel: Azmeh has allowed several areas of the score to be given over to freeform play. The style of music making is unusual in Western classical and few orchestras are entirely prepared for it, yet Mazzola and the LPO seem at ease, leaning into Azmeh’s high-pitched lyricism.

Whirlwind melodies – bookended by percussion – take us into the final toe-tapping movement. Azmeh, having played with great stillness in the earlier sections, begins to incorporate more physicality into his performance, pulling the bell of the clarinet up to ninety degrees. There is a modal flavour to the pulsing melodies, with a repetitive, off-beat rhythm known as Katakufti or Nawari, often heard in Arabic music. (This is also sampled in other pieces by Azmeh, such as Suite for Improvisor and Orchestra). Extended improvised sections are well-managed by soloist and ensemble, who build up to a Beethoven-like false ending. The audience prepares its applause, curtailed by the brass section, which takes over the tune while the clarinet accompanies. (The timbral palette works nicely alongside Amphitheatre, the orchestral piece by LPO’s current composer-in-residence Brett Dean that preceded the clarinet concerto.) The piercing upper-octave trill figure returns, as does the barely-there emblem introduced earlier. And so the concerto ends as quietly as it began, an unexpectedly muted conclusion to a striking piece.

The clarinet concerto was programmed as part of LPO’s A Place To Call Home series, a section of concerts exploring belonging and displacement. It has featured historic composers who had endured exile – Rachmaninov, Schoenberg and Bartók – as well as contemporary musicians such as Boston-based Afghan pianist-composer Arson Fahim, who recently escaped from the Taliban. The impact of enforced movement on musicians is a key programming theme at present, with the revival of refugee-themed operas (such as Flight by Jonathan Dove and Candide by Bernstein) and a new exhibition Music, Migration & Mobility at the Royal College of Music Museum, which features composer Mátyás Seiber (Divertimento for Clarinet and string Quartet, Concertino for clarinet and string orchestra, plus several major pieces of chamber music for winds).

Azmeh returned to the stage to perform the final movement from his suite for orchestra and clarinet. Wedding uses similar rhythmic material to that heard in the concerto’s dance section, with an irresistible improvisatory build-up, moving from fluttering, simple melodies to complex whirring patterns spurred on by percussion and strings. The dazzling trills and bent notes scribbled across the orchestra in a celebratory knees-up, gathering pace until the circular clarinet theme stops just short of a blur; LPO and soloist reach the finish line at precisely the same time.

The performance was recorded for future broadcast on Marquee TV; check for details.

Claire Jackson