World Music and Orchestras: A Match Made in Heaven?

World Music and Orchestras: A Match Made in Heaven?

Fri, 8/13/2010 - 11:15am — Jim Hirsch
Aug 13, 2010

I had the pleasure of attending the Grant Park Music Festival’s Wednesday evening concert featuring kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate. If you aren’t familiar with the kora, it is a 21-string West African instrument that resembles a harp. Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra opened the concert with Fela Sowande’s African Suite. Toumani Diabate and three accompanying musicians then joined the orchestra for six pieces composed by Diabate and arranged for kora and orchestra including Manchester Tune, Djourou Kara Nany, Cantelowes, Mamadou Boutiquier, Elyne Road, and Kaira.

I didn’t attend this concert with any intention of reviewing it, but the experience of hearing the combination of the West African music performed with an orchestra and a brilliant musician like Mr. Diabate inspired me to share a few thoughts, and hopefully get some of yours. Before I do, I want to give the Grant Park Music Festival programmers a huge thumbs up for consistently putting these types of interesting concerts on stage.

First a little about the concert. I enjoyed the Sowande piece and felt like it provided a lovely, relaxing introduction to the evenng. Toumani Diabate and his sidemen then joined the orchestra for the pieces noted above. At their best moments, the kora and orchestra generated lovely textures of arpegiated notes a la Philip Glass, while other sections featured melodic lines of “call and response” between the kora, winds, and strings. This music can be hypnotic, and the large audience happily joined the musicians on this journey. Both Maestro Kalmar and Toumani Diabate were clearly enjoying the collaboration. The concert ended with Mr. Diabate alone on the stage performing what must have been a twenty-minute improvisation based on a love song. All of the kora’s tonal colors were on display during this piece, and the bursts of melodic lines and variations cascading from his instrument would have put any self-respecting jam band to shame. Take that Phish!

Okay, now to my point. I love seeing these types of collaborations for a number of reasons. They often expose audiences to new types of music, new artists, and can expand our sense of how orchestras can work in genres beyond standard classical music. My tiny frustration with these collaborations is that sometimes I feel that the orchestra is not a full partner in the exercise. Arrangements often consign these wonderfully gifted orchestral musicians to a secondary role thereby squandering opportunities for amazing musical moments. I confess that I felt a few of the pieces from Wednesday evening’s concert could have been even better had the person writing the orchestrations fully exploited the musical assets at his/her disposal.

So here’s my question. Do you like these types of non-traditional collaborations? Have you heard examples that you thought were really successful? And is this an important direction for orchestras to take?



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