Middle Eastern orchestra calls Downey home

DOWNEY - In another initiative to promote a kind of music that combines multi-ethnic musical genres and traditional Western classical music, and in the process help transcend different cultures, the innovative 45-piece orchestra MESTO (for Multi-Ethnic Star Orchestra) will be performing next Saturday, Feb. 22, at the Downey Civic Theatre. Its eclectic instrumental and vocal repertoire, although skewed to the classical music of the Middle East, includes American, Greek, Spanish, Romanian, Bulgarian, Persian, Armenian, African, Italian, and otherwise European music.

This will be MESTO's second performance in Downey. Downey had its first taste of MESTO's music last October when it held its first concert here to a mixed audience (60% of it Arabic).

MESTO's director of public outreach and spokesman T.J. Troy, himself an accomplished percussionist and composer-producer, says they found Downey to be so welcoming and wonderful a venue that they decided to make the Downey Civic Theatre "our new and permanent home."

Formed in 2001, the well-traveled orchestra is led by founder and conductor Dr. Nabil Azzam, a Palestinian from Nazareth who graduated with a BA from the Rubin Academy of Music in Tel Aviv. Later moving to California, he earned his doctorate in music from UCLA in 1990 and has since continued to reside in Los Angeles. The subject of his doctoral dissertation was the famed al'Wahab.

Dr. Azzam, variously described as not only a seasoned conductor but a talented composer and arranger as well as a versatile violinist and virtuoso Arabic 'Ud instrumentalist, will in the upcoming concert premiere his two latest original compositions - one titled "El-Mallah" ("The Sailor"), the other his "Suite for Violin and Orchestra."

Troy says the "El-Mallah" piece is a tribute to Dr. Azzam's friend, Issam El-Mallah, of the Royal Opera House of Muscat, Oman, while the "Violin Suite in A-minor" (in four parts) will showcase the multi-faceted composer-conductor's artistry on the violin.

One difference between the Arab and Western musical styles is an obvious one: Arabic music employs instruments known as the oud (the Arabic lute), qanun (table harp or zither), nay (bamboo flute), darbuka (drum), and riqq (tambourine), to name just a few, in addition to the more familiar mandolin, piano, violin, viola, cello, and so on.

The more essential difference, says Dr. Azzam, lies more in the nuances, something to do with "tuning the music's scales, its expansion or contraction, and therefore its spacing between notes, and the resultant differences in the rhythm of the instruments."

To a trained ear, "This makes for beautiful music," he says.

Meanwhile, Dr. Azzam says MESTO has accumulated a total of about 175 recordings of its musical performances, most of which he composed himself, and these, together with future performances of its compositions, will form an archive for the enjoyment and benefit of future generations.

In the end, Dr. Azzam says: "It is our primary goal to more fully develop and promote MESTO, and it is our desire to play in every city in the U.S and around the world, of course, and thus bring about a global cultural understanding and tolerance through the language and medium of music and musicians."

********** Published: Feb. 13, 2014 - Volume 12 - Issue 44