IN: Reviews

Homeland and Exile


“Universal Love,” featuring music written by female composers and Afghan composers, celebrated the resilience of women in the face of adversity, and stood in solidarity with artists who have been silenced under the Taliban’s inhumane regime in Afghanistan. Boston Opera & Zarzuela collaborated with the Afghanistan Freeharmonic Orchestra at the First Church of Cambridge last Friday.

Longy students accompanied by pianist Libor Dudas were on stage for the first half. It began with selections from Clara Schumann’s Sechs Lieder. Soprano Mónica López’s rich voice fit the romantic poems wonderfully. Soprano Cassie Kollman then offered two selections from Deanna Wehrspann’s song cycle for piano and voice, Awake in Me. The text for this intriguing work was written by Olga Berggolts, a Russian who has been called “the muse of Leningrad” for her of strength and uplift during the siege of Leningrad in 1941.

Lucia Panizza warmly welcomed the audience and reminded to spread “universal love” and to stand in solidarity with women who have had to overcome immense discrimination and injustice, and with the musicians of Afghanistan who have been persecuted and banned from playing music by the Taliban. From Lili Boulanger’s Clairières dans le ciel, the soprano chose two numbers.

Soprano Lina Sarmiento expressively interpreted Amy Beach’s Oh Mistress Mine Op. 37 and Te Quiero, Dijiste by Mexican composer Maria Grever. Tenor Heming Cao rendered Oh Mom, That is me and The Vagrant’s Homesickness by Chinese composers Jianfen Gu and Ulantoga respectively. Many audience members shed tears in response to the melancholic music.

I Will Not Despair, a powerful work by local composer and Longy student, Charlotte Koonce, closed the first half. The piece for choir and piano incorporated text by Pamelia Sarah Vining. The following program note was read prior to the performance: “We chose this piece for our program since it resonates deeply with the experiences of countless women who confront discrimination, violence, and injustice daily, acting as an empowering anthem that acknowledges their pain while infusing them with a renewed sense of strength and determination. “I Will Not Despair” offers solace, inspiration, and a sense of unity to women who confront adversity in all its forms.”

Qudrat Wasefi, the founder of AFO,

For the balance of the concert, the Afghanistan Freeharmonic Orchestra offered arrangements of folk and popular music from Afghanistan. The AFO, founded by Longy student Qudrat Wasefi and composer-producer Dan Blackwell last March, is a group of volunteer musicians who come together virtually to record and publish Afghan music online. In this, the group’s in-person debut, Siddiq Ahmad played piano and Rubab, the national instrument of Afghanistan; Sitarist Huma Rahimi also sang. The forces also included Tabla player Hamid Habib Zadon Tabla, trumpeter Qudrat Wasefi , violinists Monica Lopez and Layla Ghiasi, flutist Crystal Wu, guitarist Dan Blackwell, and singers Monica Lopez and Leyla Gahramonva.

They began with a medley of Afghan songs performed by one of the most quintessential pairing of instruments in Afghan traditional music, Rubab and Tabla, and expanded for, Agar Bahar Biayad, which is a joyful popular song celebrating the arrival of spring, originally sung by legendary Afghan singer Ahmad Zahir. Beshnaw Az Ney (Listen to the Reed), a song composed by famous Afghan composer Ustad Neinawaz, features text from a poem by Rumi about a flute grieving separation. Arranger Siddiq Ahmad explained how Afghans in exile around the world, are grieving being separated from our homeland and friends and family. Tanida Yad (Entwined with the Memory of you), which expresses love for Maihan (Homeland) is also associated with Ahmad Zahir. An instrumental folk song arrangement followed. Nastaran, which means wild rose featured improvisations by various members of the ensemble including an Alaap style vocal intro by Leyla Gahramonva.

Zindagi Akher Sar Ayad (Life Comes to its end), yet another Ahmad Zahir song, makes a powerful plea for freedom and liberty. It is believed that this song led to Ahmad Zahir’s assassination by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan regime in 1979. The concert concluded with a choral arrangement of Ay Shakh-e Gul (Oh Flower Branch) and the collaborators expressing their gratitude, and reminding us to love each other, and to care for each and every person.

In the interest of disclosure, I need to tell readers that since many of my colleagues and friends appeared in “Universal Love,” I was disposed to love their performances. But honesty also compels me to mention that despite their very fine intentions, the latter half of the performance sounded under-prepared given that it was the group’s first time coming together.

Arson Fahim is a pianist, composer, and conductor from Afghanistan. A fierce believer in the power of music to be a tool for activism and social change, and a symbol of resistance, perseverance, and hope, Arson’s music is often inspired by the tragedies and injustices of war.
In 2021, weeks before the Taliban took control of Kabul and once again banned music, Arson graduated from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music and moved to the US to pursue his studies at the Longy School of Music where he was awarded a scholarship.”

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