The 21C Music Festival: Giving Wings to the Better Angels of Our Nature

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Danilo Pérez. Photo credit: The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall; Lisa Salulensky
Danilo Pérez. Photo credit: The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall; Lisa Salulensky

Danilo Pérez brought with him a very unique group of musicians – the Global Messengers – who comprised erstwhile neophytes from the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, which he founded, and included (in addition to the pianist and musical director, vocalist Farayi Malek, violinist Layth Sidiq, cellist Naseem Alatrash, percussion colourist Tareq Rantisi and Vasilis Kostas, who plays the laouto (an Grecian version of the Middle Eastern “oud” – a kind of instrument evolved – it would seem from its harmonic range and sound – by marrying the tiple and the classical guitar. The Global Messengers’ performance this evening, in addition to the Canadian premiere of Mr Pérez’s “Fronteras”, also included a breakthrough presentation of another worthy long composition by Mr Pérez entitled “Suite La Muralla (The Wall)”. Both works carefully curated by Mervon Mehta to reflect the socially conscious theme of the past two evenings.

Lately we have come to expect nothing less of Mr Pérez. He is a musician of prodigious gifts both in the realm of composition and pianism. But he is also well-known as a social activist, humanitarian, and a leading proponent of what has come to be known – somewhat uncomfortably speaking – as “global jazz”. “Uncomfortably” for many reasons, including one that was proven after the concerts here that what music has clearly become is one world without beginning or end. Certainly the 21C Music Festival where the cultural topography of many worlds collided in the music of a handful of great artists, we came closest to form a rather beautiful and holistic world of music, which, to steal from the title of Mr Pérez’s own composition, is a world without “Fronteras” or “borders”. But that’s the subject of another dissertation…

While Mr Pérez’s work has been inspired by the terrible emerging landscape of Mr Trump’s vision of the USA, it is so much more; a metaphor for a whole world seemingly gone mad as it seems to have inspired in some quarters of society (at least) the worst in human nature. And where we are comfortably numb with the fact that we have been separated by the “borders” that keep us apart because of how we look, who we are, how we worship, what language we speak at home, our individual appearance; sometimes even something as ridiculous as what we wear.

The musicians led by Mr Pérez at the piano unfolded the diaphanous fabric of this four-part composition by bringing the ingenious music to life with a wondrous ensemble performance, punctuated at strategic turns with brilliant solo breaks by instrumentalists often spurred on by a lyric line or a beautifully wordless wail by their inspirational vocalist Farayi Malek. Some of us, remembering our own travels to our ultimate home in Canada were reminded of our own journeys. Many of us, remembering the myth of Gilgamesh and the epic Exodus of Mosaic times were given new insight not only into ancient texts but made to realise just how painful is the idea of creating a frontier that keeps people out rather than encircling our planet with a human chain that protects everyone within it.

Left to right: Danilo Pérez, Naseem Alatrash, Farayi Malek, Layth Sidiq, Vasilis Kostas, Tareq Rantisi. Photo credit: Danilo Navas
Left to right: Danilo Pérez, Naseem Alatrash, Farayi Malek, Layth Sidiq, Vasilis Kostas, Tareq Rantisi. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

Throughout the work, Mr Pérez marshaled his group from behind the magnificent concert grand piano, guiding them through his epic work. A master-stroke on Mr Pérez’s part was to eschew horns of any sort from the composition. The doleful sound of absent brass – of cor anglais, for example, and of woodwinds was often supplanted by the plangent lyricism of Miss Malek’s voice as it pierced through the instrumental patina of (for instance) the first movement “Cruzando la frontera” or (“Crossing the Frontier”) and the second movement “Al-Musafir” (“The Traveler”). The dangers of the elements – something we have seen as frightened refugees from Syria, Libya and, much closer to home, refugees Central and South America experience as they flee persecution and often certain death.

We, the listening audience, became alive to the treacherous crossing as we heard the elemental cry that was sounded in the third movement of Mr Pérez’s musical odyssey: “Kalesma” (“The Calling”). We also experienced fear and trembling as the work ended as in the uncertain future of the travellers’, in the final movement of the piece – this one entitled “Destino Desconocido” (“Unknown Destination”) which seemed to perfectly and eerily describe what so many of us have read about with abject despair as thousands of refugees made to new and impermanent homes – some with tragic consequences.

But if all seemed hopeless in the soundscape of Mr Pérez’s Fronteras, hope seemed to spring eternal soon after in his other long work Suite La Muralla (The Wall). While seeming to reference more directly the ominous prospect of Mr Trump’s (Mexican) border wall, the work was also a lyrical metaphor for the invisible lines that are drawn more global. Of course, the work was also more hopeful sounding although it began with a dolorous report of the state of things on earth (Movement One entitled “Madre Tierra” (“Mother Earth”). The ensemble made up of voice, strings and percussion seemed wonderfully layered into textural strata whose shifting relationships evoked the natural forces that shape the planet.

As the piece unfolded these strata – stacked solidly one upon the other – felt immense; at other moments, especially in “Monopatia” (“Pathway”) the music thinned to the most delicate and diaphanous texture until – through “Frutillar” the work’s third movement and into the final movement entitled “Puente de las Americas” (“Bridge of the Americas”) there was a sense of reaching a radically hopeful point as the music seemed to change somewhat seismically to reflect a kind of cultural rainbow across the once-darkened sky.

Danilo Pérez. Photo credit: Danilo Navas
Danilo Pérez. Photo credit: Danilo Navas

Both pieces were performed idiomatically as if the musicians inhabited the music in a most personal manner. In making their instruments sing, violinist, cellist and laouto player played with the kind of virtuosity that only the best of their respective tribes would, which is why they were selected to play this music in the first place. The percussionist added muscularity and drama to the recital and seemed to transcend the rhythmic role associated with his battery of instruments by enlivening his playing with breathtaking musicality. The vocalist seemed to take wing from her position in the back of the strings players as her voice stood out in vivid bas relief.

Mr Pérez directed the Global Messengers from his position of leader of the ensemble with verve and supreme energy. His fleet-footed and light approach to leadership was combined with appropriately mercurial brilliance conceiver-in-chief and as pianist. Together the group parleyed with the familiarity of old friends playing Mr Pérez’s music with the sublime nobility that it so richly deserved.

In the glorious pell-mell of this edifying music that lit up the air around Koerner Hall on that eventful Saturday we should also spare a thought for Toronto’s trumpeter Andrew McAnsh, who shared his considerable gifts as a musician and instrumentalist for all those like me, who simply hadn’t had enough music even after the intensity of the musical soirée inside the sanctum sanctorum of Koerner Hall. Mr McAnsh had the task of providing a postlude to the performances and – together with a superb group of musicians – gave generously of his talent and of himself. And that did not go unnoticed.

The focus of the last two days of the 21C Music Festival remained the role of art in giving wing to the better angels of our nature. Something to cheer about… For as we all know and understand – artist and listening, viewing and participating audience alike – that art is at once, is the provocateur of both personal and collective journeys. These are journeys that we all make alone. But when we make them together we feel more secure and emerge from them much stronger as a humanity that has inherited the planet that we must care for, guarding it with each and every one of our individual lives so that it will become a genuinely better place for the generations who will come after us and whose inheritance will just as surely be what we leave behind; this gigantic blue and green rock hurtling through space, for how much longer we really do not know.

And we may also forget why we came here because we are humans who have been blessed because of the ability to feel, but also flawed because our memories are often short. But it is hoped that in the rough and tumble of the cruel times in which we live we will – with the music of the two days before the curtain came down on the Festival – remember to crave the music of the bards of our world.

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