Overall the 2009 Mesopotamian Nights Gala concert at the Galo Center for the Arts in Modesto, California, was a success. The program was presented by the Assyrian Aid Society of America (AAS-A) to raise funds for needy Assyrians in Iraq.
With the first half of the program devoted to Assyrian music in the western classical tradition and the second half to Assyrian popular music, there was something for everyone in the audience. In between, the auctioning of Assyrian art gave the crowd not only the opportunity to support Assyrian artists, but also to do its part to help Assyrians in need.
Assyryt Suite No. 1 by French composer Michel Bosc opened the program. Bosc had orchestrated some 20 piano pieces by the Assyrian composer Paulus Khofri into his suite. For this concert, the suite was to have been performed in two 10-piece sets as Assyryt Suites Nos. 1 and 2, at the beginning and then the end of the first half in that order. Because of time constraints, Suite No. 2 was eliminated from the program. Assyryt Suite presented the heart and soul of Khofri’s music with Bosc’s fine orchestral writing.
Bosc was no less successful in his operatic writing with the Overture and Act I of Qateeni Gabbara. Set to a libretto by Tony Khoshaba, this opera in progress is based on the Epic of Qateeni Gabbara by the noted Assyrian writer and composer, the late William Daniel. Although the soloists were not of Assyrian heritage, with Yosip Bet Yosip’s coaching, they delivered a fine performance of the opera in Assyrian.
I was especially impressed with coloratura soprano Shawnette Sulkter, in her role as the Stranger, for her sweet tone and emotional sensitivity. The other soloists were Artistic Director Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai, mezzo-soprano, as the Widow; John Bischoff, bass, as Malik Toma; Mathew Edwardsen, tenor, as Qateeni; and Torlef Alika Borsting, baritone, as Giliana. Guest Conductor John Kendall Bailey led the Gottschalk Music Center Orchestra.
Later, in the Duet of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, from John Craton’s opera Gilgamesh, Borsting, as Gilgamesh, and Edwardsen, as Enkidu, delivered strong performances. Also an opera in progress, excerpts from Gilgamesh premiered at the 2008 Mesopotamian Nights gala concert and were well received.
The Mesopotamian Choir Ensemble, prepared by Rev. Samuel Khangaldy, performed songs by Paulus Khofri and Nebu Issabey, in John Craton’s orchestration. These were tender nationalistic songs given a sensitive interpretation by the choir despite an occasional rough edge staying with the orchestra.
Assyrian soprano Lorraine Davis gave a memorable performance of two William Daniel songs orchestrated by John Craton. Davis has a rich and mature voice with a dark and moody thread running through it. This quality, framed in a good sense of phrasing, makes her voice and style ideal for interpreting Assyrian songs. What’s more, she floats comfortably between solo piano and orchestral accompaniment. I would love to see her record a whole range of lovely songs by Khofri, Daniel, Issabey and scores of other Assyrian composers.
The second half was devoted to Assyrian popular music. Lida Lawando’s best effort was her acappella performance, and Emanouel Bet-Younan spotlighted his taste for sensitive lyrics and lush orchestral writing.
I have saved for last what I felt was the highlight of the evening’s musical offering: the overture from the Oratorio Gilgamesh by Reverend Samuel Khangaldy. I might add I was even surprised, although I admit I had never heard Rev. Khangaldy’s music. Some 15 minutes or so in length, this is a marvelous piece of orchestral music in the way it colors the Assyrian themes in brush strokes of European Romantic.
Gilgamesh Oratorio, according to Rev. Khangaldy, will be written in 15 parts, covering the entire epic of Gilgamesh, and will be offered in Assyrian and English versions. I can’t wait to hear the work when it is completed. In the meantime, if I may be so bold, I would like to make a suggestion to Rev. Khangaldy:
Turn this Gilgamesh Oratorio Overture into a symphonic poem and compose a much shorter overture for the oratorio. This gorgeous music has all the elements of a symphonic poem: a one-movement orchestral composition with a program and in a free musical form. Lizt, Tchaikovsky, Smetana, Sibelius and many other composers wrote beautiful symphonic poems. Why not the Assyrian composer Samuel Khangaldy?
I believe Gilgamesh Overture is strong enough to stand on its own, and I can easily hear it soaring in a performance by a major orchestra. I also suggest the overture be included in next year’s performance of Mesopotamian Nights Gala concert.
Not everything was positive in this year’s program, of course, as can be expected from an event of this magnitude. As the master of ceremonies and program music annotator, I felt the first half was too long and exhausting with the amount of music crammed in. That, however, was a minor fault when compared to the excessive number of speeches.
Although delivered by worthy people, I believe the speeches killed the sparkle in the show. They disrupted the tempo and the flow. I have nothing against speeches, whether accepting awards or for worthy causes, but please save them for another time and get on with the show.
I realize these are growing pains for a remarkable attempt in presenting Assyrian music in concert form. I know in future years quality programming that is well paced will be something we Assyrians can be proud of.
Master of Ceremonies and music program annotator