The power of music to traverse, transcend and transport beyond physical boundaries will be amplified in the Oakland East Bay Symphony Orchestra's upcoming "Notes from the Middle East" concert Saturday at the Paramount Theatre.
On display will be the work of Egyptian composer Nader Abbassi, Israeli composer Avner Dorman, Israeli-American conductor Daniel Alfred Wachs and a world premiere by Palestinian-American composer John Bisharat. A cornucopia of guest artists completes the global feast: Israeli pianist Eliran Avni, Moroccan vocalist and percussionist Fatima Z. Lahlou, Venezuelan-born Pedro Eustache and four American masters of international music prove the art form knows no boundaries.
Music Director Michael Morgan will lead the orchestra's first performance of Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto and conduct Bisharat's "Ya Way Li."
Bisharat's world premiere is the latest result of the organization's New Visions/New Vistas commissioning project, which pairs composers and symphonic possibilities to reach innovative, rarely-explored territory. In an interview from his Southern California home, Bisharat spoke about the opportunity to bring his symphonic, choral, chamber, jazz, funk, New Age and world beat musical experiences to the OEBS.
"I wanted to share my personal diary," he says, describing the new work. "It's an autobiography of growing up in a warm, loving, fun family."
Some of Bisharat's "growing up" occurred at enormous, food-filled family reunions just blocks from the Paramount.
"My father was one of five kids who all had many children," he explains, "so coming to Oakland will be a family affair."
Bisharat's voracious appetite extends to the musical realm, where he has composed and conducted music for film, television, ballets and concert hall productions. His commercial work often comes with strict directives: a downbeat reduction at 17.1 seconds into a film's dramatic scene so dialogue can be heard, or a slowdown or accelerando to mirror a climactic event. In many regards, he says, the openness of concert music can be challenging, even intimidating. But the eagerness of the OEBS musicians was his first clue that this commission would be different.
"When I asked which musicians wanted to improvise on the instruments I was proposing, six hands went up. That was very exciting to me," he says.
Ironically, for a man who comes across in an interview as the happiest composer in America, "Ya Way Li" translates to "Woe, Oh Woe is Me." Based on a poem written by Emile Bisharat, his late uncle, the one-movement work is mercurial in its nationality.
"It has precise orchestral writing where every musician is given what, when and how to play each note. There's as much information as can be put on a piece of paper," he laughs.
But combined with the Arabic, Armenian and Venezuelan improvisation via the guest soloists, "Ya Way Li" has rhythmic masmoudi grooves like a big band playing a samba and Middle Eastern drumming Bisharat can't even predict.
"I get to tap into the expertise of these musicians," he says. "They'll have a general direction, but not a stern boundary."
Palestinian elements and sounds he associates with his Palestinian-born father, like the whistle beginning and ending the piece, weave their way through the sonic tapestry.
"The (instrumentation) will allow the players to bend notes and get between the half-steps," Bisharat promises.
Because the orchestra's string instruments are fretless, he says "glissandi" (tones that slide, rather than jump from one note to the next) add an evocative, Arabic flavor.
"It sounds ethnic because of the quarter-tone scale," he says, "but the whistle, when it returns at the end, has a bit of Irish in it as a tribute to my wife's ethnicity."
Bisharat's father was schooled in Lebanon and withheld his grief over the loss of his homeland until revealing the family's full history when his son was 20 years old. And while Bisharat agrees -- a part of his family heritage is the "stranger in exile" of his uncle's poem -- he has found peace in a return to his origins. Accompanying him on the journey are vestiges of America and the border-defying OEBS musicians.