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World piece

Classical music transcends generations, politics


FEB. 4 -- This past Sunday saw two unusually educational as well as entertaining recitals. First, the Atlanta Chamber Players presented their fun-for-all-the-family Music Masters matinee at the High Museum's intimate Hill Auditorium. A few hours later, a unique Arab Jewish Musical Dialogue was held at the Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech.

The Atlanta Chamber Players' core trio of founder/artistic director Paula Peace (piano) and ASO regulars Christopher Pulgram (violin) and Brad Richie (cello) put on a carefully planned one-hour performance that showed the children-dominated audience just how much fun serious artistic music can be. Opening with a humorous "classical" reading of Henry Mancini's "Pink Panther Theme," they quickly explained their game plan: offer a glimpse into the distinctive styles of three masters -- Bach, Beethoven and Brahms -- and then let the audience try to guess which piece was by which composer. As the composers represented the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods, it was easy to characterize each style: Bach was typified by imitation and layering, Beethoven by fiery passages and sudden changes and Brahms by feeling and emotion.

The trio drove the point home by donning appropriate wigs, adopting unmistakable period mannerisms and staying in character. They started off with two melodies surely known to everybody present -- Brahms' "Lullaby" and Beethoven's "Für Elise" -- before attacking "London Bridge is Falling Down" in the three styles. Their witty repartee seemed natural, and their good-natured but unmistakably competitive evaluations of each other gave the show an edge that delighted children and adults alike. All three Players, especially Peace, displayed an unexpected gift for physical comedy both while hamming it up on the mic and in actual performance.

After a lively question session, the Allegro from Brahms' "Piano Trio in B Major" closed the proceedings. The whole hour was a welcome change from the self-importance that often pervades art music concerts. By coming down to the children's level -- and bringing some classy music with them -- the Atlanta Chamber Players made new friends for themselves and the art form. (The performance clearly left an impression on the youngsters; as I tucked our 7-year-old into bed that night, one question remained on her mind: "Was Beethoven really a girl?")

The show later that evening at the Ferst was subtitled "An Evening of Harmony with Middle Eastern Musicians." It matched Jewish cellist Ohad Bar-David with Palestinian oud and violin virtuoso Simon Shaheen -- musicians who grew up not that far apart in Israel, though they didn't know each other. Now Bar-David plays with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Shaheen has long been one of the more visible exponents of world music in New York City.

The first half of the show showcased Sheheen's stunning oud (short-necked lute) playing and Bar-David's forceful bowing and plucking on several of Sheheen's own compositions. They spoke to the audience often, never mentioning politics, but rather the commonalties that bring people together. Bar-David took the stage solo for an extraordinary Hassidic medley (which he called Jewish soul music) and the African-American spiritual "Motherless Children," in the middle of which he turned his cello into a funky double bass for a few bars.

The second half opened with a taqasim (extended improvisation) from Shaheen. His fluid and frenetic fingering at times suggested flamenco as he hit bass notes, full chords and solo runs apparently simultaneously, and the very mixed (in every sense) audience rose to its feet as one when he finished. He switched to violin for his own elegiac "Prayer." And the two finished the night off with some rousing Egyptian music followed by a peaceful Turkish encore.

Bar-David says that it was difficult for him to adjust to the subtle microtones and sudden changes of Arabic music, but by doing so he has become more receptive to the music and to the people who create it. Shaheen, too, has had to accommodate, and both have made new friends in the process. Perhaps there is a lesson there for the politicians.

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