It took just three jangly notes from the santour, tuned in an Arabic maqam, to signal that you were in for a very different kind of evening. A santour is an Iranian dulcimer, and a maqam is a Middle Eastern scale you canât play on a piano, but one didnât need to know either of those things to enjoy the subtle network of deep emotional impressions in this overfull evening of UK premieres.
Four male composers of Arabic origin filled out the concertâs first half â loosely exploring the theme of the human voice â in a broad Middle East-meets-west conversation of chamber music. The main event, however, was the first public sharing of selections from a promising new opera by the British-Lebanese composer Bushra El-Turk. Adapting the landmark 1975 novel by Nawal El Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero, El-Turk fashions a sung monologue by Firdaus, an Egyptian prostitute interviewed in prison the night before her execution.
Following the novel, the opera begins with our antiheroine deciding to tell her lifeâs story. A handful of episodes are sonically and physically realised by members of Ensemble Zar. In a canny extension of the voice-themed first half, the sextet exclusively played wind instruments from the accordion to Armenian duduk, Arabic nays, Korean taegum, Japanese sho, Elizabethan crumhorn, recorder, and Slovakian fujara. Wittily choreographed by director Maria Koripas, the band were both antagonist and chorus to German-Egyptian singer Merit Ariane Stephanos.
Although a character still in development, Stephanos embodied Firdausâs rawness with authenticity and conviction. The opera has yet to address how telling oneâs story at deathâs door affects the act of storytelling itself, but overall this was a privileged first look at an arresting new piece of music theatre.
The evening did suffer from insecure pacing and too much material. The first half would have been better served with three instead of four pieces, as the event overran by some 30 minutes. But such are the risks with so many new elements in a festival context. Now in its fourth incarnation, the Shubbak festival of contemporary Arab culture embraces both local and international artists, often smashing them together at high speed to create original â if temperamental â interdisciplinary events. It was thrilling to see so much diversity in such a bastion of western music as St Lukeâs, and more should be made of the biennial Shubbak and its artists â it is clear they have much to say.
â¢The Shubbak festival of contemporary Arab culture continues in London until 16 July.