Monday, November 18, 2013

Review: Balkan Bolero, by Isidora Zebeljan


Isidora Zebeljan is a Serbian pianist and  composer who is well known in these shores. From 2003 onwards her opera, Zora D, propelled her to international exposure, and she is now recognised as one of the major composers working today. What is important about her music is her ability to dissemble melodies and time structures, while communicating coherently and emotionally. The moods are often melancholy, but her work can be mischievous, whimsical, confused or hilarious. All human life is here.

In this new work, Zebeljan produces an astonishing collection of musical mood pieces, stories, vignettes, and statements. As the title of this work suggests, the pieces are rooted in her pan-Balkan experiences and identity, and so we hear ancient folk motifs, alongside current macro-themes of nationalism and post nationalism. What is fun about the collection is the interweaving of the Bolero format, with occasional half-forgotten fragments from Ravel's original masterpiece. In many ways, Zebeljan actually rescues this piece from overfamiliarity, and allows us to rediscover why we liked it in the first place.

There are some music fragments here that are highly melodic, and deeply moving; while other episodes make one feel like one is at a carnival, or round a camp fire, listening to a lone instrument being played. Given this diversity in expression, the collection, however, hangs together coherently, and at the end, one feels one has ended a journey - or arrived at a new and exciting place. For me this superbly imaginative music, transformed me into an Isidora Zebeljan fan.

Zebeljan wrote the piece primarily for the oboe, that most slithery and plaintive of instruments. To have the oboe as prime mover for over an hour like this, may seem likely to stretch the attention. On the contrary, however, the instrument adds narrative and continuity to the diverse pieces, and the playing of Borislav Čičovački is energetic and knowing, imbuing a recognisable voice to the instrument, which is engaging and powerful. The other musicians are superb as well, and the tight expressive playing weaves stories and memories amidst the troubled cities and camp fire smoke.

While global commerce and rampant materialism wreak cultural havoc around the world, it is great to report that the human spirit is alive and kicking in high musical art, such as this. Expressive and inventive musical talents such as Thomas Ades and Isidora Zebeljan are a reason to be optimistic about the state of art and culture. Balkan Bolero is such a work - of high art, humanity and serious endeavour. It is also a great deal of fun.

I wholly recommend it.


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