Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Middle East meets Spain half-way at Marc Thayer

Photo is borrowed from the Flickr of abudoma and belongs to him, not me.

Marc Thayer has been to all of these important and obscure places, absorbed their musical genius, and worked hard to spread it around, with no apparent aim other than enlarging his own sense of possibility and then sharing that with anyone willing to sit still for a minute and listen.

That's what makes it such a pleasure to be around Marc when he is making music possible. He sits still and listens.

Last Wednesday evening Adam Long and I watched Marc Thayer sit still and listen, when he wasn't playing violin. He sat still and listened to young musicians from the city of Suleimanya in Kurdistan (northern Iraq), whom he had helped come to St. Louis to study. Marc put together a program of Spanish and Middle Eastern music and encouraged these international conservatory students to play some of their local music on a mix of traditional and European instruments.

"They play lots of Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart," Marc said; "but not tonight!"

In their music school back in Kurdistan, Marc pointed out, they studied both European art music and their own local traditions, playing both symphony instruments and traditional ones. "I'd have a lot more fun playing music if I had learned jazz when I was a music student, and I encourage it," Marc said.

Marc Thayer is vice president for Education and Community Partnerships at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. It's one key reason the symphony in St. Louis is so great, this entrusting to very senior positions -- like vice president or musical director -- people with a genuine passion for music and extreme nerve for testing the limits of what was previously thought possible.

In his remarks between performances, we got a glimpse into what shaped Marc. He talked about being a teenager in Cordoba (in Andalusia), which he described as "the capital of Spain when it was a Muslim country". Why he was there, he did not say -- he sounds of American stock -- but he spoke with unabashed admiration for the city, especially its one surviving mosque. It was spared by the Catholics, but had a cathedral inserted inside it.

"A few blocks from this mosque is where Ferdinand and Isabella gave Christopher Columbus the permission to come look for India, and he ended up here instead," Marc said.

He sat still and listened intently when Alan Salih, Reben Ali and Honar Ali played Kurdish, then Arabic, then Persian music on violin, oud, cello and sharba (a hand drum much like a tabla). "The more I listen to Middle Eastern music, the more I realize I have to learn," Marc said, during one break. Then quipped: "When I play a quartertone, it's by accident."

Yet, the most musically satisfying event of the program, Adam Long and I decided, was the Spanish music performed by Marc Thayer on violin and Maryse Carlin on piano -- and especially the final piece, a trio for piano, violin and cello in B minor (Opus 76) by Joaquin Turina, when they were joined on cello by Ranya Iqbal, who brought an exotic look to the European musical grouping.

Ranya Iqbal visually completed Marc's argument that the music of the Middle East is intimately connected to the music of Spain.


Photo of the mosque/cathedral at Cordoba is borrowed from the Flickr of abudoma and belongs to him, not me.

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