If Ravel had known about Afghan instruments such as the rubab, the sarod, the tanbur, or the tabla, the great orchestrator surely would have included them into his Bolero. The Afghan Youth Orchestra did just that on Wednesday evening during the first of two concerts at the New England Conservatory. They added raw energy to Ravel’s already driving force, and the result was spine-tingling. A second concert with an expanded program will be performed tonight at 8:00 PM, in NEC’s Williams Hall.
In an arrangement by William Harvey, one of several Americans teaching orchestra members in Kabul at the three-year-old Afghan National Institute of Music, Bolero begins as a showcase for the Afghan instruments, as one by one, each is given a featured turn. The twangy-sounding, 22-stringed rubab is among the first to play, and keeps coming back and coming back, driving the piece into its fury. Guest conductor Lio Kuokman kept the energy tightly focused while giving the players plenty of breathing space to make a glorious sound.
While the entire concert was a fascinating blend of Eastern and Western tonalities and rhythms, the Bolero, better than any of the others, showed the musical diversity of this remarkable orchestra—several of whose players were orphans living in the Kabul streets with little previous exposure to music.
Other pieces explored some of the riches of the Afghan musical tradition that, sadly, is not well known in the west. Some were quite simple. A folk tune, Tashki, allowed nine young boys in traditional shalwar kameez outfits to demonstrate the sounds and range of their instruments, sitting cross-legged on a platform —a takht—surrounded by those playing western instruments, wearing white tie.
As the hour-long concert progressed, the complexity of the music increased. An unnamed raga based on a well-known Sufi melody that took flight in its last moments as a ghazal, with three young women playing sitars, as well as several young men on the sarod. It was a worthy prelude to another impassioned raga, “Raga Bhopali,” arranged and conducted by William Harvey and featuring Farshad Fayzi on the sitar.
In between was a well known Pashto popular song, “Da Zemong Ziba Watan” (This is My Beautiful Country) that, like “America, the Beautiful,” is Afghanistan’s unofficial national anthem. The orchestra provided a rich, sweet sound. Perhaps more than in any other piece, it sang of the great yearning for peace that fills the hearts of most Afghans.
The orchestra and the institute are the work of Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, an Afghan who trained at Monash University in Australia, and who gathered resources from governments and aid agencies to fund the program.
This is the first tour the orchestra has ever made. On Tuesday night, they performed to a packed out Carnegie Hall in New York City. The week before, they played to a standing-room-only crowd at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall. The concerts are a showcase of what is possible. Areas for improvement are evident, especial among the Afghans performing western stringed instruments. But the orchestra’s talents are many, and the joy elicited by their music is genuine.
The Afghan Youth Orchestra will remain in residence at NEC through February 17th. A second concert with an expanded program will be performed tonight at 8:00 PM, in the NEC’s Williams Hall. Tanya Kalmanovitch, an NEC faculty member who has twice traveled to Kabul to teach at the institute, is coordinating the residency.
Following their performance on Wednesday, the Afghans attended a concert by the NEC Philharmonia, as one of several opportunities for them to see their opposite numbers at the NEC making great music.