Three Faces of Jerusalem: Improvised Antiquity

The house lights are down at Koerner Hall.  Two figures appear on either side of the balcony behind and above the stage. Their Silhouette turns to spotlights and two women begin to sing what, to the untrained ear, sounds like a mix between a Gregorian chant and a call to prayer.

The Three Faces of Jerusalem, held this past week, was a concert in the 30th season of Soundstreams. In those 30 years, over 150 new works have been commissioned and countless concerts have been performed in Toronto and beyond. The Three Faces of Jerusalem takes inspiration from the traditions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity with interpretations of old pieces mixed with new, commissioned ones and interlaced with poetry about the Holy city – past, present and future.

Kiya Tabassian
Kiya Tabassian (setar) and Yair Dalal (oud) during rehearsal for Three Faces of Jerusalem.

I have played in concert halls like Koerner before but, as a flutist who failed to advance beyond intermediate level, I thought I had left that world behind. Couple this angst from eavesdropping on the conversations around me and hearing U of T Music program grades chatter amongst themselves, I was sure I was out of my depth. I felt strangely at peace though, almost confident that we were all hearing pieces we weren’t wholly familiar with. Aside from those proclaiming they hadn’t heard Hildegard von Bingen (composer, 1098-1179) since grad school, this music would be new to our ears. Something about musical training, and indeed in all arts training, focuses so solely on the Western tradition that we must make the effort to hear anything but — or does it just feel like an effort?

The crowd was (wisely) instructed by dramatist Diego Matamoros to not except any order to the afternoon – though many still sought guidance from the otherwise information packed program. Structured pieces weaved into improvisations as singers and musicians entered and exited the stage. I was expecting to hear voices ring out in Arabic, Latin and Hebrew, but was wonderstruck to hear Françoise Atlan bring life to songs in the Judeo-Spanish tradition. This was truly something I had never heard before.

In Arabic music, which is really just a blanket term for music that spans a lot of history and geography, scales are based on a maqam. It’s not chromatic, like the scale we use in the West. At the risk of getting too technical, I’ll just say that the 5th perfect internal in the maqam is tuned based on the 3rd harmonic in the series, and I can’t even pretend to be able to explain that. I will say though, it sounds different. It is like nothing else.

I was, at times, overwhelmed by it all. In behavior more befitting of a maiden from the 11th century, I was brought to tears during the afternoon.  But keeping his cool at centre stage was Yair Dalal on oud and violin, as well as vocals. He was my visual centre and talisman.

At one point of transition, Michael Ibrahim gave a tentative breath into his mizmar and was as startled as the audience to hear its power in the acoustics of Koerner Hall. A quick laugh at Ibrahim shrinking at the gaffe and we moved into the next arrangement, Ibrahhim taking care to bring a more demure sound from the mizmar. I had a feeling that this instrument wasn’t made for concert halls, but rather for the street. It felt much like the medieval words spoken that day; created in the oral tradition and never meant to be constricted to the page.

Thanks to a partnership with Bank of Montreal, Soundstreams is able to offer 100 tickets for just $20.  With that, “music lovers of all ages” can experience what money can sometimes limit; access to culture.

Next up in the Soundtreams program is a concert of Japanese percussion and voices in partnership with Japan Foundation and Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre. Music from Japan and Canada, as well as premiering commissioned pieces – as per Soundstreams’ modus operandi — coincides with films from Japan to be screened at the TIFF Lightbox.

About Yuli Scheidt

Yuli was born at the exact moment in 1986 when the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded and rained down on the ocean. As a child she believed this meant she was destined for greatness in the realm of space travel and radioastronomy. Nothing remotely as awesome as that has happened so far. Instead Yuli, at the age of 18, relocated from Calgary to Ottawa where she studied photography, life sciences and graphic design before moving to Toronto. [More by Yuli]