OPENING CELEBRATION — THE AMERICASAt the Hollywood Bowl, October 10
My apologies for being short with the nice festival staff who volunteered to organize this ambitious project; I guess I was one of the few who failed to completely transcend the delays and dogsniffs associated with security for the Dalai Lama, who personally addressed the audience at this segment of his world-spanning brainchild. And the event‘s rewards definitely dwarfed its occasional inconveniences. It was an inspiration to watch as an array of religious establishments — historically second only to nations as generators of bloodshed and division — dropped their shields and joined together in the cause of global understanding.
However you regard the centuries of feudalism represented by the line of Dalai Lamas, there’s no denying the outrage the People‘s Republic of China has perpetrated upon Tibet; maybe that’s just the kind of situation the current (14th) Dalai Lama was thinking of when he suggested that we try to draw something positive from life‘s tragedies. He couldn’t be such a powerful advocate for world peace without his status as a victim and an exile.
Among this sampler‘s international performances (Indonesian, Native American, Hawaiian, Israeli, Mexican, Brazilian), a couple made especially strong impacts. One was a group chant by the monks of the Drepung Gomang, Drepung Loseling and Ganden Jangstse Tibetan monasteries. These different groups don’t usually pray together (neither do Jesuits and Dominicans, come to think of it), but, tricked out in full crimson-and-yellow robes and crests, they went at it like a gang. The monks‘ split-toned unison groans established a transporting mood, then switch-off antiphonies between sections truly rocked. There’s something physical about this sound — it seems to unite people almost at a molecular level. Great.
The other big hit was the Interdenominational Gospel Choir, looking to be about 250 strong and composed of singers from various Christian churches and even a Jewish temple — the selections emphasized Old Testament stories common to all. After an introductory speech describing God as the Internet connection that never goes down, the choir made its point: Spirituality is power; there‘s nothing like the punch of a lot of people together, singing what they mean. Despite sprinklings of pop influence, the arrangements were inventive and involving, bringing a new sheen even to more familiar tunes such as ”Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.“ And the walls came tumbling down. A-men.
”Anyone who listens to a Beethoven symphony and can’t hear soul,“ the program notes quote Ralph Ellison as writing, ”is in trouble.“ Well, call me Mr. T, but, especially following the gospel shout, I found Esa-Pekka Salonen and the L.A. Philharmonic‘s rendering of Ludwig Van’s Ninth about as spiritual as a liverwurst sandwich. And the problem wasn‘t the performance, it was the material — a composition that ranges from martial stomping to sodden maundering to its famous concluding movement, which is better suited to an Oktoberfest swilling song than to a heavenly choir. When Beethoven thought of God, he wasn’t thinking about the desire to embrace the One, he was imagining the violent clash between good and evil, order and chaos, pilsner and lager. Most of the music at this festival was alive and optimistic; as much as we appreciated the thought of Salonen‘s participation, its actuality was a snore.
SHAHRAM NAZERI AND THE DASTAN ENSEMBLEAt the Japan America Theater, October 9
A central motif of the World Festival of Sacred Music is outreach, but local Iranians take every opportunity to experience their musical heritage live, so the crowd was 95 percent Persian. And that’s okay. Talk about enthusiasm — these ladies and gents rocked, clapped and even wept their appreciation.
The sounds of Shahram Nazeri and the Dastan Ensemble spring from a tradition of Sufi mysticism, expressed through the group‘s three stringmen and two percussionists, and through the words of 13th-century poet-philosopher Rumi as sung by the generously mustachioed Nazeri. The singer perfectly struck a difficult balance: His high, balsa-wood tenor, sometimes declamatory, sometimes wailing at the edge of control, sometimes seeming to swallow 100 cubic feet of airspace rather than project into it, simultaneously conveyed ancient respect, austere passion and simple humanity as he sat on a stool, offering up natural, understated hand gestures. Complementing the voice, the Dastan Ensemble (Hamid Motebassem, Hossein Behroozi-Nia, Pejman Hadadi, Reza Ghassemi and Afsheen Mehrasa, all also seated) struck forth with every conceivable combination of virtuosic interplay: solos, rapid unisons, call-and-response and counterpoint from the strings (tar, setar); light thrumming or heavy pounding from the drums (tombak, daf).
There was a certain desert dryness to the first half of the concert, wherein Nazeri communicated Rumi’s love and spiritual yearning in words this non-Farsi-speaking reviewer understood as ”In spite of the obstacles, I will prevail“ and ”You‘re not really going to harm me, are you?“ But in the second half, the message changed to ”Let’s rock“: The ensemble massed into a galloping groove as Hadadi delivered a mighty tombak solo that had the whole house out of their seats and yelling. One little old gentleman with ecstatic eyes and a white crescent mustache pranced a traditional dance step back and forth in front of the stage. The serious musicians even grinned a little. It was family.
DAY OF DRUMMINGAt MacArthur Park, October 9
Did you know that there‘s a MacArthur Park in Long Beach, too? Neither did I. So when I arrived at the one in L.A. for the Day of Drumming after inadequate schedule scrutiny and found no drums, I was disappointed at first. But then I discovered a lot of things that reminded me of drums. Flat snap of foot against soccer ball as guys half-ass kicked (too hot to compete). Kid handclaps, hollow ping of inflated rubber ball on ground. Two teens fakeboxing, dull smack of pulled punches. Mass flap of pigeon wings. Slap of dollar bills on sidewalk as 20 men bet on dice. (Dice inaudible because they’re extra-small.) And there was other music. Faraway radio wash. Snatches from mariachis in bar across the street. Brakes. Bells of ice cream cart tinkling all the time. Pretty damn sacred, if you ask me.