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Ayman Fanous and Tomas Ulrich in Concert: Improvisational Excitement in Classical Music

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Their collective improvisation, an almost polyphonic rumination on the melody, was at once comfortable and daring.
Ayman Fanous and Tomas Ulrich
St. Mary's Episcopal Church
Washington D.C.
May 9, 2009



Jazz performance and concert production is hardly thriving in Washington, D.C. Clubs have either closely entirely or altered programming significantly so as to focus on music deemed to have wider commercial appeal. As a result, creative improvisation is increasingly hard to find. But local guitarist Ayman Fanous has, in the last several years, assiduously produced a number of concerts featuring the solo efforts of a major, nationally-known player, who can also be heard in duo performance with the guitarist. Bassist William Parker, guitarist Joe Morris and violinist Mark Feldman have all been successful recruits of Fanous.

It has been almost a year and a half since Fanous recorded Labyrinths (Konnex, 2007), a duo session with cellist Tomas Ulrich. Recently, Fanous brought the soft-spoken cellist to the city. St. Mary's Episcopal Church, just outside of Georgetown, provided a serene venue on what was a steamy May evening.

Although Labyrinths focuses on the more adventurous aspects of their musical relationship, this concert emphasized the role of improvisation in classical music performance along with classical components of contemporary creative music. As Fanous reminded the audience, J.S. Bach was renowned for his considerable talent at improvisation. Indeed, improvisation played a significant role in both performance and even in notated music in the eighteenth century.

Ulrich began the program with a what he called "a series of miniatures," starting with the Prelude from Bach's Second Cello Suite, in D minor (BWV 1008). The cellist's improvisational gift was immediately evident. He eased into each phrase with a fluid flow of limpid lines, loosely following the score. The second piece focused, as the performer explained, on "sound rather than notes," as Ulrich's hands moved furiously up and down the fingerboard. Alternating among harmonics, articulated notes, and liberally pitched textures, the cellist constructed a soundscape illustrating the natural yet unconventional possibilities of the instrument.

Ulrich introduced another miniature by explaining that "everyone should hear some Hindemith everyday. But I am of the minority opinion." He then played a portion of Hindemith's Cello Sonata, Op.25, No.3 in a caressing manner while reading the score. However, no sooner had the brief excerpt gently faded into the wooden sanctuary than Ulrich's cello screamed with almost electrical distortion along with ethereal ferocity. He bowed the bridge and slammed his fingers on the board for great dramatic effect.

The cellist concluded his solo portion of the program by returning to Bach's cello suites. The Sarabande, from the Suite No. 1 in G major (BWV 1007), was more than a mere afterthought or virtuoso display. Ulrich brought out the inherently gentle and hushed quality of the piece. Although the performance may not have been a literal reading of the music, it certainly emphasized the improvisational quality that is welcomed by this singular, spiritual musician in whose hands the baroque form simply resists categorization.

Fanous, whose varied influences include Paco de Lucia and Bern Nix, began his solo set with an "improvisation in the Spanish mode," the flamenco elements of the guitarist's musical personality juxtaposed with impressionistic phrases. The guitarist continued with an improvisation which began with a literal performance of Hector Villa Lobos' Prelude number 2, Schottisch-choro, (A. 419), proceeded to develop a series of Spanish-tinged themes and eventually returned to the composer's melodic statement.

Although Fanous focuses on the guitar, he also regularly features the bouzouki, a Greek folk instrument and long-necked lute with roots in Asia Minor. The instrument has a mysterious metallic timbre that simultaneously intimates sounds found in India, the Middle East, and North Africa. Fanous continuously plucked the bass strings to produce a drone effect, while a series of flamenco lines soared above the insistent low tones.

The duo portion of the performance was an entirely empathetic conversation between familiar musical compatriots. They began by playing the Villa Lobos Etude No. 1. Ulrich alternated between a pizzicato articulation and bowed phrases while Fanous stated the melody. Their collective improvisation, an almost polyphonic rumination on the melody, was at once both comfortable and daring. However, the two musicians were always careful to alternate politely between the roles of soloist and supportive complement.


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