Current Projects Update 9/5/2018

With a busy fall semester ahead I can now look back at a productive summer that included the completion of my Violin Concerto No. 1 and the premiere at the Grand Teton Music Festival of my String Quartet No. 1: Shades of Night.

Post premiere of String Quartet No.1: Shades Of Night, back stage at the Grand Teton Music Festival, August 2nd, 2018. (Left to right): Susan Assadi Gulkis on viola, Angie Fuller-Heyde on 1st Violin, Kareem Roustom, Charae Krueger on Cello, Marta Krechkovsky on 2nd Violin and Jerry Hou, conductor.

The GTMF musicians performed beautifully and I am eternally grateful to them for bringing this work to life. I look forward to sharing the audio from the premiere soon!

The Violin Concerto No. 1, which will have its premiere in Berlin on March 6, 2019, is now with an excellent and capable copyist, Doug Biggs.

Now I can focus on a new work for A Far Cry and Lorelei Ensemble. The text for this work comes from a new translation of the Homer’s The Odyssey by Emily Wilson. I am just beginning to explore this material and I look forward to writing for these excellent musicians. The premiere will take place at New England Conservatory’s beautiful Jordan Hall on May 17, 2019.

Incidentally, Violin Concerto No. 2 has already been commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for their principal 2nd violinist, Angie Fuller-Heyed, who premiered my String Quartet No. 1 (pictured above). It was such a pleasure to work with Angie and her colleagues this past August, and the time working together will be incredibly helpful when I begin the violin concerto for her. I tend to write works for specific people rather than an instrument or an ensemble. Getting to know a soloist, conductor, or performers is, for me, vital in the creative process. As is visualizing the physicality of playing a particular passage, especially in a concerto setting. Violin Concerto No. 2 is scheduled to be premiered sometime in the 2020 – 21 season.

Also in early May I recorded my Clarinet Concerto: Adrift on the Wine-dark Sea.This work, which I am very excited about, will be released on Kinan Azmeh’s CD sometime this fall. More details soon.

Finding time to work on Violin Concerto No. 1 while in Berlin recording my Clarinet Concerto with Kinan Azmeh and the Deutches Symphonie Orchestre.


At the end of the recording session in Berlin with (left to right) clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, vocalist Dima Orsho, conductor Manuel Nawari, me, and engineer Florian Schmidt.

Also in April and May, I orchestrated 60 minutes of music of Olivier Deriviere’s beautiful score for a new video game titled, 11-11 Memories Retold. I also had the distinct pleasure of attending the  recording session at Abbey Road Studios in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra, who are one of the finest orchestras around. This was my third time working at Abbey Road and it is always a thrill, and I always learn so much from working with such an excellent orchestra.  I’ve not orchestrated music for anyone other than Olivier, as I don’t have the time to do so.  Olivier is a friend and a colleague and, as his regular orchestrator dropped out at the last minute, he was in a bit of a bind. The fact that the gig comes with a few days in London is an incentive as well. On this trip I was able to make a pilgrimage to Benjamin Britten’s home in Aldeburgh. It was a fascinating and inspiring visit!

At the producer’s desk in Abbey Road’s Studio 1 listening to the Philharmonia Orchestra recording Olivier Deriviere’s beautiful score to the video game “11-11 Memories Retold”, which I had the pleasure of orchestrating. The legendary engineer John Kurlander is at the console.

In other news, I am very happy to announce that I’ve signed a contract with the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago to compose a 15 (or so) minute work for choir and orchestra for their 2019 summer season, which will commemorate maestro Carlos Kalmar‘s 20th year as music director at GPMF. I’ve chosen text by Walt Whitman after extensive research that included reading an informative but frustratingly meandering biography by Justin Kaplan, as well as reading most of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

As it turns out, 2019 will be the 200th anniversary of Whitman’s birth, which was on May 31st. The themes of the text I’ve chosen are from Whitman’s writing on social justice, corruption and democracy. More on this soon…

Please don’t “like” and don’t “follow” us on Facebook, Twitter etc.

I’ve finally decided that it is time to disconnect from all social media. No FB, no Twitter, or any other platform. My reasons for doing so are varied but they include the reasons that have been discussed in public (from Cambridge Analytica and earlier). I also believe that these social media companies are, in essence, vile in their methods of manipulating users into addiction so as to focus primarily on their bottom line.  However, you don’t have to take my word for it, there are plenty of articles on books, based on peer reviewed research, that support this point. You might start by reading internet pioneer Jaron Lanier’s book “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.” Here is a review of this book. 

It isn’t enough to blame these big companies but we must also start with ourselves; i.e. the ‘users’.  If there weren’t so many people on FB etc. then there wouldn’t be an FB etc.  As Jaron writes ““If you’re not part of the solution, there will be no solution.”

Lastly, Lanier’s book makes an important point that I’ll quote from a NY Times review below. Read this and think about it.

“[Lanier’s] argument, however, is a profound one. He worries that our reliance on big tech companies is ruining our capacity for spirituality, by turning us into robotic extensions of their machines. The companies, he argues, have no appreciation for the “mystical spark inside you.” They don’t understand the magic of human consciousness and, therefore, will recklessly destroy it.”

Professionally, FB and Twitter were not all that useful because the work that I do involves face to face relationships that require a trust that is built over time.  In addition, it is impossible to keep up with 600 or so ‘Friends’, many of whom I’d never met, even though I was grateful for their reaching out to me. Instead, I prefer to meet people, whenever possible, in person or to be in touch in other ways (old fashioned e-mail, or better yet a letter!). No I’m not a luddite but I’m also not the only one making these points.

Frankly, I feel great without FB in my life any more. Try it 🙂

OK. Enough of this. Back to work!

In memoriam Oliver Knussen

The news of Oliver Knussen’s untimely passing came to me last night via e-mail. I was deeply saddened to hear this as Knussen was only 66. As far as I’m concerned, Knussen (or ‘Olly’ to those who knew him), was one of the greatest composers, conductors and musical minds of his generation. His music moved me deeply and inspires me constantly. Last year, I composed a work for solo piano titled Soliloquia No. 1 and I dedicated it to Mr. Knussen. Earlier this year I had planned on mailing it to him with a letter thanking him for all the inspiration his music has given. However, I was too self conscious and shy to follow through with this, which is something that I regret very much.

Rest in peace, Olly.

There is a beautiful tribute in the LA Times by Mark Swed here.

Violin Concerto No. 1 – Update No. 1

My first violin concerto is commissioned by the Pierre Boulez Saal, through the Daniel Barenboim Foundation, for violinist Michael Barenboim and the Pierre Boulez Ensemble. It will premiere on March 6th, 2019 in Berlin at the Pierre Boulez Saal.  Details about the concert are here.  I began working on this new commission, in earnest, in mid-May, but ideas about it have been around for a few years.

The violin concerto is inspired by a moment, that came and went, at a rehearsal in 2014. At the time I had no idea that this ‘moment’ would inspire a violin concerto but I was quite certain that there was a piece to be weaved from it. This ‘moment’ occured during the summer of 2014, when I had the opportunity to travel to Buenos Aires for the premiere of my Ramal for orchestra by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and Maestro Daniel Barenboim.  During one of the rehearsals, the orchestra was rehearsing Mozart’s piano concerto No. 27. A number of bars into the first movement, D.B. stopped the orchestra to focus on a line that wasn’t played correctly. He focused in on this first violin line:

Bar 137 – 139 from Mozart’s piano concerto No. 27, first movement.

The exact phrase can be heard here.

The reaction to this phrase, played on without the bass line and the inner voices, by the Arab violinists was an immediate hearing of the maqam Hijaz. So they began improvising in the Arabic style, but just for an instant.  Like many wonderful but ephemeral moments in life, it was an inspirational moment that it stayed with me all these years.

Doubtless, my recollection of it has also changed. However, this phrase, and the reaction to it, are now at the heart of my violin concerto. On some level, I suppose I’m interested in why Mozart, and later Beethoven, were attracted to these ‘oriental’ figures. Also, why later they became grotesque ‘orientalist’ pieces that have caused all kinds of misunderstanding between “East & West”.  But there is also some cause for optimism that these kinds of intersections can resonate across boundaries and cultures.

I know what you are thinking, but my training in ethnomusicology long ago taught me to bury the notion that ‘music is a universal language.’ It isn’t. However, there are some commonalities and that are undeniable. For this violin concerto, the danger of slipping down the slope of orientalist shlock is very real, but the possible rewards for navigating this treacherous path are also great, and very inviting.

This phrase, transposed up a fifth from the original Mozart key of Bb, is at the heart of the harmonic and melodic language of this violin concerto:

With a little work, and imagination the above can yield this harmony-mood-feeling (we need a word for this):

In terms of maqam (Arab music scalar system), I hear it along these lines (kind of a hyper maqam Saba on C#):

But more on this later.

From here the journey begins.

BTW… why am I calling this work Violin Concerto No. 1? Because No. 2 is already in the works. More on that later.

DSO recording session in Berlin: Photos and recap.

It was such a great pleasure to work with the Deutsches Symphony Orchestre, clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, conductor Manuel Nawari and engineer Florian Schmidt to bring my Clarinet Concerto: Adrift on the Wine-dark Sea to life. We recorded at the legendary Jesus Christe Kirche in Dahlem, Berlin. ‘Legendery’ because the great conductor Herbert Von Karajan used to record the Berlin Philharmonic there because he loved the acoustics. Indeed, the acoustics are terrific but the isolation is not so isolated. We often had to stop recording when children were playing outside or the guy across the street decided to hop on his John Deer mini-tractor and haul random objects around his lawn. All in all, it will be a terrific recording that also features music by Kinan Azmeh, Zaid Jabri, and the late Dia Succari. It should be out in November on the Dreyer-Gaido Label.

Post recording with (left to right) clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, soprano Dima Orsho and conductor Manuel Nawari.

Another beautifully in focus photo brought to us by Samsung! ;-P


Water gong, yes, but also the finale calls for two overturned wooden bowls that, when struck with mallets gently, sound like a boat tied to a dock gently knocking against it as the waves rock it to and fro.
More percussion; tin cans in the foreground and ocean drum in the background.


Kinan, Dima, Manuel and the DSO recording one of Kinan’s pieces.
Inside the control room, which was my view for most of the sessions. Basic but functional. Monitoring on headphones wasn’t ideal but engineer Florian Schmidt is incredible. I’ve never worked with an engineer who knows the score as well as the conductor.
On a beautiful spring day in Berlin, what else is there to do after working hard in the studio all day?
Later that night I attended a concert, that included some of my music, at the incredible Pierre Boulez Saal. More on that in my next post.

May concerts, clarinet concerto recording session, and sneak peek at a string quartet

There are three concerts coming up this month in Dearborn, Michigan where the DSO, under the direction of Kypros Markou, will perform ‘Aleppo Songs’ for orchestra, in Berlin where mandolinist Avi Avital will perform my ‘Hanjale’ at the Pierre Boulez Hall, and in Kassel, Germany where composer/pianist Samuel Cho will perform  ‘Aleppo Songs’ for piano solo at a benefit concert for a local girls shelter. Details are here.

On May 3rd I will have the distinct honor of attending the recording of my clarinet concerto in Berlin with clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and the Deutsches Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Manuel Nawri. This project has long been in the works so Kinan and I are extremely excited for this incredible opportunity to work with one of the finest orchestras in the world. The recording will be released on CD on the Dreyer-Gaido Label sometime in November. More on this soon…

String Quartet No. 1 Shades of Night has been printed, bound and mailed to the Grand Teton Music Festival where it will have its world premiere on August 2nd. I’ve posted the score for reading here.

In the meantime, work has begun on Violin Concerto No. 1 which will have its premiere in March 2019 in Berlin. More details coming soon!

String quartet completed! Up ahead, GTMF residency, Carnegie Hall, Minnesota Orchestra, clarinet concerto recording

This past week saw the completion of my first string quartet (String Quartet No. 1 Shades of Night), which was commissioned by the Grand Teton Music Festival and where it will be premiered in early August.  I will also be the first ever composer-in-residence at GTMF this coming summer and I’m very much looking forward to that as well.  I’m also excited to announce that the Sphinx Virtuosi will tour in the fall with my Dabke for string orchestra. The tour includes a concert at Carnegie Hall. In a surprise (at least to me) announcement, the Minnesota Orchestra will be programming my Ramal for orchestra in their fall season. Details about all of the above here.

In early May I will travel to Berlin to oversee the recording of my Clarinet Concerto: Adrift on the Wine-dark Sea with clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and the Deutsches Symphony Orchestre.  This project has been years in the making and I’m very much looking forward to this recording.  A world-premiere is in the works for September of 2019 in Germany. More details on this soon.

Chicago Tribune review of the Grant Park Music Festival premiere of ‘Ramal’ for orchestra

It was an absolute pleasure to be in Chicago for the regional premiere of my ‘Ramal’ for orchestra which was performed by the Grant Park Music Festival Orchestra under Fawzi Haimor. Despite the very stormy weather earlier in the day, the clouds cleared and approximately 4000 people attended the concert that also featured music by Haydn and Hindemith. Read the Chicago Tribune review here and the Chicago Classical Review here.

World and regional premieres coming up in Boston, Hamburg, Brussels, London, Chicago, Berlin and New Hampshire

Late winter (if it can be called a winter) and spring are shaping up nicely with a number of concerts coming up. March begins with the world premiere of my ‘Aleppo Songs’ for solo piano by Thomas Stumpf. This concert will take place at the beautiful Distler Hall in Boston on the campus of Tufts University. I’m very excited about this piece as it’s goals are to raise money (I’ll be donating all profits to MSF and other aid organizations working with refugees) and awareness (three of the five movements are based on urban folk melodies from Aleppo, one is based a Syriac hymn and the remaining is an original work).

March will also see the mid-Western premiere of my Abu Jmeel’s Daughter in St. Louis with Chamber Project St. Louis. I’m also very proud to have the Germany based Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra give a second performance of my Dabke for string orchestra at the stunning new Elbephilharmonie Hall in Hamburg and the Belgian premiere of my Ramal for orchestra. The latter will be performed with the Belgian National Symphony.

In early May the European premiere of my Buhur for clarinet and string trio will take place at the new Pierre Boulez Hall in Berlin (with Kinan Azmeh on clarinet) as well as another German performance of Dabke by the Staats Theatre Kassel Orchestra in Kassel, Germany under the direction of Anja Bihlmaier.

On April 28th three of the top string quartets at the Royal Academy of Music in London will give the European premiere of my A Voice Exlcaiming for triple string quartet.

In June Kinan Azmeh will give the European premiere of my A Muffled Scream for clarinet and electronics at the Pierre Boulez Hall in Berlin.

In July, conductor Fawzi Haimor and the Grant Park Music Festival Orchestra will give the Chicago premiere of my Ramal for orchestra.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make all these concerts but I am every grateful for the interest in my work.

More concerts and  details of upcoming performances are here.


“Aleppo Songs” for solo piano will be available in early 2017

Aleppo Songs for solo piano is a reflection on a number of urban folk songs from Aleppo, known as qudud, as well as original material.  All profits from sheet music sales as well as royalties generated from 2016 – 2018 performances will be donated to Doctors Without Borders to support their work in the Middle East. Other aid organizations will also be considered as this is an ongoing project.

Aleppo Songs (2016)
Instrumentation: Solo piano
Duration ca. 15′

I. How beautiful the light of the rising sun

II. Antiochian hymn

III. Oh people, leave me to my sorrows

IV. The silenced guardian

V. That’s it! I intend to leave you

This work is currently in progress (very close to completion) but will be available in early 2017.

Watch here as pianist Riyad Nicolas gives an impromptu reading of this first page from the first movement of Aleppo Songs.