September 13, 2006

A Little Too Talented

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After all the pomp of our new President Skorton’s afternoon inauguration, after all the speeches and term promises, Cornell closed the day with a performance by internationally-renowned musician Simon Shaheen, a Palestinian-born master of the oud (a lute with a bent neck and strange fret spacing) and violin in the newly renovated Bailey Hall. With all the talk about his dazzling style and general international good will, the night was an exciting one for fans of Middle Eastern music — probably the most soulful genre to come out of humanity’s harmonic endeavors. When Shaheen played, however, something was missing — but what?
The concert started at 9 o’clock sharp with Professor Paul Merrill’s Cornell Jazz Ensemble. This incredibly tight quintet — whose four other members are or once were Cornell students — showed fantastic music dexterity, especially when it came to swing. Even our new President proved correct those claims of the “Renaissance Man” by adding some talented jazz flute to one selection. Without any other formalities, the group played traditional jazz extremely well, nailing all the melodic heads, trading eighths amongst themselves with ease, playing solos with some sense of a united structure and most importantly, listening to each other as much as they listened to themselves.
If this is the most important aspect of what good music great — that is, when good musicians truly hear one another when the play — then this is where Shaheen failed. There is no doubt that he is a virtuoso at his instruments — only a few minutes of watching him fly over the strings of the oud in brilliant runs could show us this. Shaheen even showed us, proudly, how he could play two parts on the violin at the same time by holding a drone note and adding a melody over it, all with one bow. His skill as an individual is truly superior.
The problem here is that Shaheen decided to surround himself with at least eight excellent other musicians — most of which who served no other purpose than to be his rhythm section. In the five selections Shaheen played — five being a possibly inaccurate count since I did leave while Shaheen was still performing — Shaheen soloed prominently in every one. The third selection, a piece by a historically aware yet modern Egyptian composer Mohamed Abdel Wahab, was entirely solo.
The thing I love most about Middle Eastern music is the way the entire piece hangs together so well — the way it builds, climaxes and unknots, the way each instrument comes together as individual talents and creates something entirely more beautiful and soulful as an ensemble. This is not Shaheen’s mission — the fact that there are three pages of biography about him while only some of the musicians he employs get their names printed proves this well enough. It doesn’t help anything that Shaheen only gave each musician one opportunity to solo — in the last selection “Waiting Dance,” and even then, only briefly — while his microphone dominated the amplification at most other times. If I hadn’t seen four other stringed instruments on stage, I wouldn’t have known that they were there, and three percussionists could barely compete with Shaheen’s sound. When they did finally get a chance to be heard, all that can be said is that I wished I could have heard them the whole time.
After the performance, I ran into Professor Marty Hatch, who delivered a few introductory comments before Shaheen took the stage. When I told him that I felt something went missing during Shaheen’s set he told me he was glad to hear a confirmation of his own thoughts. “It was too virtuosic,” he said. Can a musician ever be too virtuosic? In this case, we both agreed the answer was yes — and the cost of that answer was the soulful collaboration of the musicians who were clearly capable of it. In this light, for all his potential, Shaheen’s concert emerged only as disappointment.