Sounds of the Balkans
Folk music meets chamber orchestra in an unusual musical conversation
An unusual musical conversation between a chamber orchestra and players of Balkan folk music comes to Palo Alto this month in the form of a free concert.
In playing the three folk pieces that make up part of the program, the young members of the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra will be trying their hands and bows at different meters and scales. Also, something that daunts many a classical musician: a bit of improvising.
Kaila Flexer, the Oakland violin soloist and composer who will be featured at the March 9 concert, knows that nervous feeling. She was following a classically trained path before she got swept away by klezmer music, and then by the sounds of Turkey and the Balkans.
In one of her first musical experiments in college, Flexer started a klezmer band with a few fellow students. As jazz musicians, they knew from improvising. She didn't. "They'd say: 'OK! Violin solo!' and I'd say, 'What am I supposed to play?'" Flexer said in an interview. "They'd say, 'It's in your head,' and I'd say, 'There's really nothing in there.'"
Still, the music kept resonating with Flexer. The more she listened, the more she understood it, and the more comfortable she felt in stretching her wings and improvising within its context. While Western music is often in 4/4 or 3/4 time, for example, a Balkan piece might have its notes in groups of twos and threes, making up 9/8 or 13/8 time.
"The scales are also very beautiful and unusual," Flexer said. "The first time I heard Turkish music it just broke me down. It was so powerful." She heard colors and nuances of notes that she'd never experienced in Western music. "It's really like looking at a palette of blue and you have every shade of blue."
Flexer hopes the PACO musicians have an equally positive experience. She's rehearsed twice with the youth orchestra, fielding such questions as "How are you getting that sound?" and "Do you want us to change the bowing in a certain way?" It's a different world for both sides. Orchestras are used to having most things written down, while Flexer does a lot of verbal arranging with her small ensemble Teslim (Turkish for "commit" and "surrender").
So far, Flexer's impressed by both the orchestra and its music director and conductor, Ben Simon, a longtime friend. "Their sense of rhythm and their ability to imitate new sounds that they may not have been familiar with was just fantastic," she said. "They got the ornaments." When she asked for volunteers to improvise, several hands flew up.
At the concert, the orchestra will play one traditional Sephardic piece and two Balkan-style songs composed by Flexer and arranged for the orchestra.
Joining them are Flexer on her violin and three other musicians she's bringing along. Gari Hegedus, her musical partner in Teslim, will play oud (a Persian stringed instrument and descendant of the lute), the circular frame drum and the mandocello. Miles Jay plays an unusual smaller double bass that he built himself to fit into the upright compartments of airplanes. Percussionist Tobias Roberson plays the frame drum and the box drum, as well as the Egyptian riqq, a type of tambourine.
Flexer's two songs, "Stone's Throw (For Carla)" and "Carla," were written in honor of her friend Carla Zilbersmith, who died at age 47 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). A video for "Stone's Throw," with photos by Serbian photographer Aleksandra Radonic, is displayed prominently on Flexer's website. While poignant, the song also has a swirling, dancing feel. It feels like a true tribute to a woman who was known for both her music and her improv theater.
Flexer and her cohorts are also planning to perform one song alone (they haven't decided which one yet), and the orchestra will also play the folk-flavored "Trio Serenade" by Ernst von Dohnanyi, and Felix Mendelssohn's Sinfonia No. 2 in D Major.
When Flexer's not performing with Teslim, Simon's San Francisco Chamber Orchestra or other groups, she's often teaching music or composing. She also runs cultural events like the Bay Area festival Klezmer Mania, which she founded and produced for several years. Often, she's just plain listening to music, often Balkan, Turkish, Greek or Sephardic. "It's like you are what you eat. You compose what you listen to," she said.
"In composing, I really feel like a novelist whose characters tell her what's going to happen," she said. A melody — or a phrase, or a flutter of an idea — often just emerges on its own.
"When I first started composing, if a melody wanted to go straight, I would send it left — I thwarted expectation in an attempt not to be predictable — my songs were a bit quirky and a bit self-conscious," Flexer added later in an email. "Nowadays if a melody emerges and wants to go somewhere, I let it. ... We spend so much time receiving input these days. If one can create a bit of quiet, it's amazing the music that is in the ether."
What: "Mediterranean Journey," a Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra concert featuring violin soloist Kaila Flexer and her folk-music quartet
Where: Cubberley Theatre, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, March 9
Info: For more about PACO, go to pacomusic.org or call 650-856-3848. For more about Kaila Flexer, go to kailaflexer.com.