Middle Eastern music on the Mokawk Trail

Thursday July 4, 2013

CHARLEMONT -- Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, composer and percussionist Yousif Sheronick grew up playing drums in rock and concert bands at school.

At home, his mother sang music from her native village, Jubb Jannin, in Lebanon.

Tomorrow and Saturday at Charlemont’s Federated Church, Sheronick and his wife, violist Kathryn Lockwood, will perform the composition he named for his mother’s first home.

In "Jubb Jannin," Sheronick will play the wooden bendir frame drum, often used in sacred Sufi ceremonies, while Lockwood will play a part originally written for the middle eastern cane ney flute, transforming the strings of her viola into the haunting echo of the ancient instrument.

While Sheronick still plays classical Western percussion instruments, "there’s something about actually holding a drum that really turned my head around," he said.

"I don’t play traditional Middle Eastern music," he explained. "I play more of a hybrid contemporary style of frame drumming, taking these instruments into different genres."

With busy separate international careers as members of ensembles including the Pacifica and Lark Quartets, and Ethos Percussion Group, he and Lockwood perform together as duoJalal, and they will conclude two Mohawk Trail Concerts of German composers -- Wagner, Schoenberg and Hindemith -- with three contemporary selections on a middle eastern theme.

Raised in a family of classical musicians, Lockwood left Australia for the United States to study music. Sheronick grew up playing in drum corps at school in Cedar Rapids, part of a thriving Muslim community where his Lebanese grandfather had built the nation’s first freestanding mosque.

His Yale professor Gordon Gottlieb introduced him to world music.

"Every time I would see him he would bring in some new instrument from Brazil or India," Sheronick said.

He and Lockwood first met at a New York City arts presenters showcase. After they married, it took them some time to start playing together.

"We were off doing our own thing," Sheronick said. "She was playing Brahms and Beethoven and classical string quartets, and I was playing Steve Reich and all this world stuff. We just never thought we would work together."

Then, seven years ago, Russian composer Inessa Zaretsky wrote "Dervishes," for them.

Invoking the ecstatic whirling followers of 13th-century Sufi poet Jalal al-din Rumi (after whom duoJalal was named), it blended Sheronick’s virtuosic knowledge of middle eastern percussion instruments with Lockwood’s versatile command of her Western-trained strings.

"We just enjoyed playing with each other so much," Sheronick said, "we could rehearse in the basement in our pajamas."

"I fell in love with the distinct sound [of middle eastern music]," Lockwood said. "The musical scales are so different, and the viola matches the drums perfectly. It really broadens my playing."

Whether capturing the breathy quality of the ney flute or mimicking a Mongolian horsehead fiddle, Sheronick observed Lockwood has a talent for hearing what an instrument sounds like and translating that onto her viola. "There aren’t many violists that can do this," he said.

This weekend’s tribute to Middle Eastern music brings in a work by another Russian composer. Like his father, Alexander Zhurbin, New York City-based Lev "Ljova" Zhurbin is a much sought after film composer. He also arranges music from around the world for groups like Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and the Kronos Quartet. He created the middle-eastern-inspired "Shadow and Light" for duoJalal, joining the viola with an eclectic mix of instruments including the Kalimba thumb piano, goblet-shaped Dumbek drum and Tibetan Prayer Bowl.

The third selection is an arrangement of Hafez Nazeri’s "Eternal Return." Charismatic composer and performer Nazeri is the son of revered Iranian Rumi interpreter Shahram Nazeri -- known as the Persian Pavarotti -- and traveled to the United States to bridge Western and Middle Eastern classical music. Sheronick performed as part of Nazeri’s ensemble and adapted "Eternal Return" for duoJalal.

Mohawk Trail Concerts has presented its eclectic summer series for more than 40 years, winning an ASCAP award for "adventurous programming."

"We embrace every kind of music, old and new, from near and far," said Mohawk artistic director Ruth Black. "It’s not just Mozart and Beethoven -- we can have renaissance music, jazz, contemporary."

Black, wife of late festival founder Arnold Black, programs seasoned performers with younger artists at the forefront of modern day musicianship and exploration.

"You keep your ears open and you listen for people," she said, "especially for up-and-coming groups on the cusp of a career."

Black regards Lockwood and Sheronick as "first rate, well-rounded musicians."

Lockwood, who is a viola professor at UMass Amherst, will also perform a Hindemith sonata at the concerts, she said.

Like Rumi before them, duoJalal’s work is devoted to uniting cultures and overcoming differences.

"Rumi’s poetry is universal, it doesn’t speak to one person or one religion," Sheronick said. "Our music is the same thing. We don’t want to stick with one genre, we’re happy to collaborate with people from all over the world and use this as a universal language."

If You Go...

What: Mohawk Trail Concerts, ‘German and Modern Middle Eastern Music’

When: Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Federated Church, Charlemont

Admission: $15-$20 general admission

Information: (413) 625-9511 or 888-MTC-MUSE, mohawktrailconcerts.org


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