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"The sound of the instrument moves me" - World renowned clarinetist Kinan Azmeh to play with Saskatoon Symphony

by Scott Roos

photos by Liudmila Jeremeis


Hey musician types, NSMZ has a few questions for you. When it comes to the instrument you are currently playing, did you choose it? Did someone else choose it for you or did IT choose you? For Syrian born (currently residing in NYC), critically acclaimed, Grammy winning (he played on the Silk Road Ensemble’s Sing Me Home album), clarinet virtuoso Kinan Azmeh, the answers to these questions might be a resounding “yes” to all three. Azmeh will be sitting in with the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra this Saturday, March 2nd to perform his stunning “Suite For Improvisor and Orchestra”. Azmeh chatted with NSMZ this past week about his music, his instrument and his upbringing in Damascus, Syria.


As a youngster, it’s safe to say that Azmeh was definitely raised within a family that appreciated the arts. They wanted Azmeh and his sister  to have as many experiences within the arts as possible in order to give them both a well-rounded upbringing. 


“They both wanted us to explore everything in the world from our tiny apartment in Damascus so there was also music at home, lots of literature, theatre. We learned how to paint, to draw... All of these things were part of our activities,” relates Azmeh, “And actually my parents, also. When my sister and I were learning, they picked up instruments themselves. So I grew up in a household believing that that's what every family does every day: to play together. And we played music together every night. And that was an incredibly meaningful thing to grow into.”


At first, Azmeh started out his musical adventures on the violin. This was at the age of six. Unfortunately, due in large part to his being left-handed, he struggled. 


“I played violin because we had a tiny violin sitting at home. When I had to take lessons I remember clearly how miserable of an experience that was. You know when you start you hold the bow with your hands and just play open strings and that for me was very hard because I'm left handed. Doing anything with my right hand was incredibly hard,” Azmeh recalls. 


A few years prior, Azmeh’s father had purchased a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica (this was in the pre-internet days when you had to look up information via physical means) and, being the curious man that he was, consulted these tomes to see if he could come up with a solution for his young son that would make him more comfortable when it came to playing music.  When a clear solution failed to present itself, he wrote the Britannica and received a response about a month later. According to the Britannica people, who had sent a series of articles to Azmeh’s father to peruse, the solution was to switch Azmeh to an instrument that was more “even handed” or, in other words, an instrument where both hands are required to participate to the same degree of difficulty. The choices, based on what the Azmeh family had access to, came down to either the piano or the clarinet.


“Even at that age, even as a six year old, I felt like a musician has to be a traveler too, so I simply went to the lighter instrument. I thought people traveled with their own pianos and I thought that would not be good for traveling. So I went with the instrument that was lighter to carry. So that's what happened,”  said Azmeh.


Of course, at this point, it would be low hanging fruit to say “and the rest was history”. In truth, it wasn’t. Whilst Azmeh did take to the clarinet quickly, it took him a while to actually grow fond of the instrument itself. In his words “the clarinet takes a while to get a nice sound”. He’s not wrong. He was studying lessons at his local music school in Damascus and still failing to get a tone that he felt satisfied with but, even so, he can recall two moments specifically where his opinion of his instrument shifted to one that was more positive.


“I was playing with a Syrian youth symphony. I was ten or eleven years old and we were playing Tchaikovsky's ‘October’; the month movement that he wrote and arranged for orchestra (‘The Seasons’ 37a) and it has a clarinet solo and I remember I was trying to play that piece and the conductor wasn't very happy with how I was playing. He sent me home and told me that when I get it I could come back. I will never forget that night. I went home and was really heartbroken that the conductor said that I couldn't do it. So I practiced it and my parents really encouraged me. I will never forget that moment. Suddenly I was incredibly moved by what I was playing. I think it was mixed emotions. I was moved that I was able to play it but also I was very moved by the sound of the instrument and the melody I was playing. I think that was a switch point. I was saying to myself ‘oh I love this very much and I think I am good at it too’.”


“The other interesting point for me was maybe a few years after that my parents went to Hungary and they got me two LPs. One was by the famous Hungarian clarinetist Béla Kovács who played the classic repertoire: Rossini, Mozart you name it. And there was another LP by a gypsy clarinet player. His name was Erno Kallai Kiss. I will never forget his name. It was for me a window that opened in my brain. The same instrument, this exact same instrument, from two people from the same country in a way, playing an incredibly different kind of music. For me it became like this is the instrument that can do everything.”


“When I look back at the instrument, I like how flexible the instrument is. The sound of the instrument but also how it's present in so many different musical vocabularies world wide.”


“The sound of the instrument moves me and I think that comes from the fact that it's very close to the human voice. To the nature of the human voice - both in register and dynamic range. Also of note is how soft this instrument can play and it can scream. It has a vast variety of timbres it can produce.”


“Also in my opinion I grew up in a very diverse cultural background so I was exposed to a wide variety of things from a very early age. So one thing to do it all helped me to continue to fall in love with the instrument. I'm not saying that other instruments cannot do that. That's not what I'm suggesting because I know that you can. But the clarinet by default has been doing this for a long time.”

It was this drive to explore soundscapes on his clarinet that eventually led him to mastering the instrument itself. His music studies at first led him to the The Higher Institute of Music in Damascus before he headed across the Atlantic to Juilliard and the City University of New York to pursue graduate and post graduate work. While some may say that it’s a common trope that the world of classical music can be stuffy, rules based and inhibiting to musicians, Azmeh never felt held back by the series of great teachers that he had.


“All my clarinet teachers were people who were thinking of the instrument as a tool and not as the goal. Their focus was always on how you can use this instrument to help you self express and not how you can create a sound that will sound exactly like this recording or that recording or that player or this player. So the obstacles have never been from my teachers,” muses Azmeh.


“Some of the most meaningful lines came from my teachers were ‘you have to become convinced to convince me’. I don't remember a teacher ever telling me to do it this way and this is how it's going to be. So I guess I was lucky to study with the right people. All of these teachers were simply telling me 'Kinan this is your voice, let's train you in how you can expand your vocabulary and then you choose what you want to do with it.’” 


Now a distinguished composer as well as a highly sought after instrumentalist, Azmeh spends much of his time expanding people's boundaries when it comes to their notions of what “classical” music can be. His composition Suite for Improvisor and Orchestra, which features prominently on his Uneven Sky full length, is a sumptuous cocktail of styles, genres and cultures colliding into something truly special and unique. Azmeh’s improvised clarinet work soars overtop of everything providing that proverbial icing on the cake. Music connoisseurs will definitely recognize the performance of this piece as something very very special and unique. The concert will also feature works by Faure and Dohnanyi to round out the occasion. As mentioned earlier, Azmeh will play this piece with the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra this Saturday, March 2nd. The festivities will start at 7:30 at TCU Place. Tickets can be purchased HERE.


“It's a piece that was inspired by a story” -  A listener's guide to Kinan Azmeh’s Suite For Improvisor and Orchestra in the composer’s own words (see below)

“Lots of the times the titles of the movements of my pieces come either from an experience I lived or an experience I wished I had lived or sometimes they have a name based on the form like Clarinet Concerto or something. But these pieces in Suite for Improviser and Orchestra were actually inspired by real events.” 


Movement I: Love on 139th Street in D

“I wrote this maybe in 2006. I had been living in Harlem. I moved to New York in 2001. I wanted to write a piece about Damascus. I was missing home and I sat at my desk trying to write this piece and then the sound of my first floor neighbour started blasting. He was somebody who used to blast reggae and merengue music 24/7. I never met the guy, but the whole building was shaking to this music. So the sound of my new adoptive home crept into the piece that I was writing about my original home. So the piece has a little bit of an odd homage to him even though the modes I used are from Damascus. so maybe it's a love letter to this neighbour that I never met.” 


Movement II: November 22nd

“November 22nd was written on that date in 2007. It was the day after thanksgiving after the first time I attended a thanksgiving dinner in the United States. That thanksgiving was significant because it was the first time that I felt at home away from my original home of Damascus.” 


Movement III: Wedding

“Wedding is inspired by the mood and the spirit one can find in a Syrian village wedding. It's like the whole community gathers in the public square and musicians also show up and they play whatever they like to play. You cannot submit a playlist you know? And of course all the melodies of all the movements are all original. They are inspired by ideas and experiences that I've lived.”


“The whole piece collectively is about this ambiguous feeling like you feel good in a new place and then suddenly you feel bad for feeling good. You start to question 'is it okay if I feel at home in another place too? Or am I betraying my original home if I do that?'. So I think the programmatic note for the work altogether is celebrating but also questioning the notion of home and what that means and home continues to expand. So there's a piece inspired by Syria, there's a movement inspired by Harlem and there's one that questions both places at once.”


“When I improvise or when I'm playing, I don't think about that anymore. It's in the music that is written down. When I'm improvising and when I'm playing what's written, for me I get busier with musical stuff. Sometimes I channel what I'm feeling right now obviously with all the, you know, sometimes with the atrocities that are happening in today's world, sometimes I'm thinking about my wife and my son. It can be anything but from a musical perspective. lots of the time I impose on myself the challenge of how can I play tonight's concert different from every time I have played this piece before. I love that challenge actually so much because I go and I promise myself like ‘Kinan you're not gonna repeat any of the solos that you have performed before or have played before.’ Mind you I have played this piece maybe at least 200 times. So it's an exciting challenge to think about. Like okay today has to be as if it was the first time and that's what I think about mostly.”


"I'm very much looking forward to discovering the city (of Saskatoon) and to become friends with the orchestra and to expand my notion of home a little bit more so it includes your province."


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