East Bay symphonys Notes From series plays a visit to the Middle East

It’s probably just a coincidence that President Barack Obama visited Israel, Jordan and the West Bank a few weeks prior to the Oakland East Bay Symphony’s upcoming “Notes From the Middle East” concert, which will feature music from Israel, Egypt and the West Bank.

Then again, the symphony’s annual “Notes From…” series previously has coincided with world events. “We did ‘Notes From Persia’ at about the time things in Iran started to heat up with the United States,” mused Michael Morgan, music director of OEBS.

Morgan offered no explanation for the timing, but cheerfully welcomed the opportunity “to connect what the orchestra is doing to what you’re reading in the newspaper. People sometimes feel classical music has no connection to the real world.”

Michael Morgan photo/eric politzer

And “Notes From the Middle East,” at 8 p.m. April 20 at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, is all about linkages. “We’re proud to be naively trying to bring the world together,” Morgan declared. “We know we can’t change everything. We can make an example of where the similarities are in places that seem to have political difficulties.”

Morgan hears many commonalities in the music from the many nations in the often hostile Middle East. “I always hear similarities in the treatment of rhythm and sometimes what would be considered in Western music quite unusual rhythms, but that are very logical and danceable rhythms in that part of the world. Some of the intervals you hear among the notes will remind you of music from the other countries in the region. It’s only natural because everyone is situated so closely together.”

The music also showcases shared emotions. Morgan will conduct the world premiere of Palestinian-American composer John Bisharat’s “Ya Way Li,” based on a poem by Bisharat’s grandfather, Emile. The poem’s title means “Woe Is Me” in Arabic, and it’s the lament of a refugee from war-torn Lebanon that could have been written by the rivers of Babylon.

“My country has collapsed,” the poet grieves. “Half of it is in ruins and the rest buried beneath the Earth / And here I am, interred and yet I am still alive like a lost one in the desert / Without a canteen and without water / During the civil war I departed my country / And here I am a stranger in exile / With no hope of ever returning to my origins.”

Morgan connected with Bisharat through Israeli-born American conductor Daniel Alfred Wachs, who commissioned Bisharat for a piece for Wachs’ youth orchestra in Southern California. “I met with Bisharat and heard a shorter version of ‘Ya Way Li,’ ” Morgan said. “Once I asked him to bring it to this concert, he expanded it to a 25-minute piece with various soloists and a variety of instruments.”

Wachs will serve as guest conductor for Egyptian composer Nader Abbassi’s “The Nile Bride” and Israeli composer Avner Dorman’s “Astrolatry.” “The Nile Bride” is a tone poem based on the Egyptian myth of a girl who sacrifices herself to save a city from the flooding of the Nile. “Astrolatry” is inspired by the majesty of the stars, according to Dorman, whom Morgan considers “probably the hottest young Israeli composer.”

Israeli pianist Eliran Avni, an in-demand performer of solo and chamber music worldwide, will play the Piano Concerto of Edvard Grieg. “We always have something from the standard repertory for the audience and also to connect the performers back to we normally do,” said Morgan.

Most of the “Notes From” music is new to the orchestra, however. “It’s a really steep learning curve for all of us,” acknowledged Morgan. “I’m always doing pieces that I had no idea existed, and the orchestra is really excited to do things we haven’t done before — even in terms of intervals and tunings. We have the most adventurous audience that an orchestra could hope for.”

Moses and Susan Libitzky of Piedmont are sponsors of the Saturday night concert (which begins at 8 p.m. in deference to those who observe Shabbat). “Israel and peace in the Middle East are big interests of ours,” Moses Libitzky said. “What makes for peace is seeing and understanding the narrative of the other side. I hope that this concert will serve as a bridge, because that’s what it’s all about.”

“Notes From the Middle East,”
8 p.m. April 20. Pre-concert talk at 7 p.m. Paramount Theater, 2025 Broadway, Oakland. $20-$70. www.oebs.org or (510)444-0801