A near-capacity audience at Eastman’s intimate Kilbourn Hall was treated to a riveting performance at Tuesday night’s concert by international world-music supergroup Qantar, fronted by composer, scholar and stringed instrument virtuoso Simon Shaheen.

Shaheen, born and raised in Palestine, learned the ‘ud, a short-necked lute, from his father. Today, Shaheen is regarded as a peerless technician and improviser on that instrument, as well as the violin. He plays both of these with dazzling virtuosity and heart-wringing expression, employing an impressive array of techniques, including moaning bends and curt muted sounds, that make his tonal palette shockingly close to the human voice.

His quintet, Qantar, performs with a comfort that makes them seem like family, but also with an urgency that marks them as adventurers. Bassam Saba plays flutes, soloing with dexterity and haunting feeling, playing effortlessly in unison with Shaheen on even his most intricate passages. Guitarist Brad Shepic played a textural role, subtly supportive on a classical guitar that was the perfect complement to Shaheen’s strident ‘ud sound.

Bassist Thomas Bramerie did not so much declare the pulse as insinuate it, with a warm tone and solid beat. Subdividing this beat into figures of amazing complexity was a dream team of percussionists: Matthew Kilmer on sundry instruments and Michel Merhej on the riqq, a small tambourine. I have never before considered the tambourine a virtuosic instrument, but, in using it Merhej manifested sounds and rhythms I would not have believed possible. Both he and Kilmer were able to pull a maximum of rhythmic force from a minimum of movement. Kilmer, observed during several knock-out drum breaks, was often using only his fingertips.

Unfortunately, I missed Shaheen’s pre-concert lecture; he is known world-wide as a deft communicator and educator. Once the show began, Shaheen was a man of few words. Six of the concert’s eight works were his own, every one a highlight, all dispelling my initial fears of homogenized ethnic music.

Eclecticism – especially under the much-abused moniker of world music – can lead to unfocused messiness. Shaheen’s writing, however, integrates elements of Balkan, Arab and Mediterranean music into a cohesive, thoughtful whole – complex but pleasing, propulsive but never overbearing. The group interpreted his compositions with intensity and subtlety. Its volume never became uncomfortable, but the fire under their playing never abated.

Standout segments include the eerie, reflective “The Wall,” inspired by the composer’s encounter with a newly-built dividing wall – meant to quell social tensions – in Bethlehem. Music like Shaheen’s is an antidote to such divisions, and “The Wall” conveys real sadness over the sorrows of this region. Another highlight was the completely improvised duet that opened the second set, with Merhej’s tambourine and Shaheen’s ‘ud exchanging overlapping musical phrases in the sonic equivalent of a spirited, witty debate.

The group’s improvisational skills really came to the front in the last two numbers, “Al-Qantara” and “Waiving Sands,” where every member of the group stretched out on extended solos. During this charged episode, Shaheen wore a grin that showed his excitement and gratitude for having such a fantastic band at his side.

Though many of the evening’s tunes were touched by sadness, the festive – even anthemic – refrain of the closer, “Waiving Sands,” had the entire audience clapping the pulse with gusto.

After a standing ovation, en lieu of a traditional encore, the band revived the beat of the last song they had played. Over this groove, Shaheen offered what was clearly a sincere expression of deep thanks to the audience. “It has been a thrill to play for you,” he said. “[We] feel at home.” I, too, was thrilled.

Kloss is a member of the class of 2008.



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