by Lawrence Toppman
Those of us concerned about diversity in classical music will smile when learning about “Malek Jandali: Concertos.” Today’s release from Cedille Records unites violinist Rachel Barton Pine, conductor Marin Alsop, clarinetist Anthony McGill – the first African-American principal hired by the New York Philharmonic – and the Syrian-American Jandali, Queens University of Charlotte’s first composer-in-residence.
But that wouldn’t mean much, unless these concertos grabbed listeners for the hour’s worth of music on this impeccably recorded disc. The soloists shine, and Alsop and her Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra accompany them faithfully through every mood.
WDAV listeners may have heard the world premiere of Jandali’s “Elegy” when the Charlotte Symphony played it at Queens in January. The setting was apt; he earned a degree there in 1997 as a piano student of Paul Nitsch, before getting a master’s degree in business from UNC Charlotte in 2004. (Parishioners at St. James Catholic Church in Concord may remember him as the guy who played the organ and directed their choir.)
Jandali’s website includes a discography of well-received recordings, many of which blend European compositional styles with Arabic motifs or performance practices. This new one does the same, in two long-form concertos that seem relaxingly familiar and enticingly unfamiliar at the same time.
As I listened to Pine play the 36-minute concerto dedicated to her, I thought of Brahms for a lot of reasons. Jandali’s piece also has a long and thoughtful opening moment, an introspective middle section and a dancelike finale. (By coincidence, Pine’s instrument belonged to Marie Soldat, a friend of Brahms and the only woman to tackle his violin concerto in her day. I learned this from Cedille’s typically comprehensive booklet.)
But unlike the German maestro, Jandali has a specific program: He’s giving voice to Syrian women persecuted by Bashar Hafez al-Assad, the dictator who has crushed Syria for 23 years. Jandali pays tribute to women who have been jailed, vanished or been murdered for speaking out; his own mother and father were beaten by Syrian police after their son took part in a peaceful protest at the White House in 2011, and they have since fled the country.
Jandali uses the Arabic oud in conversation with the violin, as plaintive voices crying out with dignity and restraint. (Kudos to oud soloist Bassam Halaka.) And maybe that buoyant feeling in the finale represents not exuberance but defiance, as a protest against suppression. That sentiment has never been more timely: The Arab League has just allowed Syria to rejoin after 12 years of sanctions, despite Assad’s continued brutality.
The 25-minute clarinet concerto operates mostly on a mysterious plane, one we associate more obviously with Arabic elements. Some of the subtle, sinuous playing and percussive rhythms would not be out of place in a good Hollywood soundtrack – that’s a compliment – as Jandali slowly brings us into his sound world.
This concerto opens with a section marked “andante misterioso,” and it holds that feeling through the first two-thirds. The middle movement, a nocturne, consists of six variations on a Syrian theme titled “My beloved, how did they take you from me?” – again a cause for contemplation and mourning.
Then, as he did in the violin concerto, Jandali cuts loose in a final movement that breaks out ecstatically. McGill, for whom the piece was written, shows a wildly virtuosic side in a soaring cadenza that offers a feeling of hope after darker musings.
Speaking of hope, I hope the Charlotte Symphony will consider these concertos for the 2024-25 season. I have no idea whether the CSO could get or afford Pine or McGill, but it would be a joy to hear someone perform these pieces live in Jandali’s adopted city.
Pictured: Malek Jandali; malekjandali.com.