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.

Words and pictures from August 2016, a summer of orchestras: Philharmonia Orchestra at Abbey Road, Boston Landmarks Orchestra & Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra

It was an absolute thrill to be at Abbey Road Studios this August working with the fantastic musicians of the Philharmonia Orchestra. We had two days of tracking for an album project that I am producing/composing/arranging whose details I will announce in 2017.

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From the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Twitter feed.
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Talking to the members of the Philharmonia Orchestra before our first session.
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Maestro Arturo Rodriguez conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in Studio One at Abbey Road.
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With on orchestra that sounds this good, how can one not smile?
“Armenian Dances” for Orchestra

The Boston Landmarks Orchestra commissioned me to write a suite, based on traditional Armenian dances, for orchestra.  The result was a 13 minute suite that was premiered on August 17th at the DCR Hatch Shell under maestro Chris Wilkins.

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Boston Classical Review wrote “One of the most memorable pieces heard Wednesday night was Kareem Roustom’s Armenian Dances, which also received its world premiere… Roustom’s score is a charming and accessible collection of dances that brim with silky lyricism.” Read the full review here.
“Ramal” for Orchestra; US Premiere at the Grand Teton Music Festival
Maestro Donald Runnicles (music director at Deutsche Oper Berlin, Principal at BBC Scottish Symphony, Principal Guest Conductor at Atlanta Symphony, & Music Director at the Grand Teton Music Festival) gave the American premiere of my Ramal for orchestra, a work that was commissioned by Daniel Barenboim & the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 2014. Maestro Runnicles and the GTMF Orchestra, made up from members of the Los Angeles Phil. Pittsburgh Symphony Dallas Phil. Atlanta Sym. Concertgebouw & a number of other esteemed orchestras, gave two performances of my Ramal to a packed Walk Festival Hall.
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A sold out Walk Festival Hall at the Grand Teton Music Festival before the performance of ‘Ramal’ for orchestra, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto & the Rachmaninoff Symphony no. 2.
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With maestro Donald Runnicles at the closing party of the Grand Teton Music Festival.

Armenian Dances and the echoes of genocide

What’s behind this number? This is a page from my Armenian Dances; an arrangement of traditional dances from the Vasbouragan region of Armenia for the Landmarks Orchestra and Sayat Nova Dance Company. The parts and score finally were completed and delivered today; the same day that the German government recognizes the Armenian genocide. There are several dances in this movement and each is titled with only a number. The reason for this is not without insignificance. Vasbouragan was part of Western Armenia but is now part of Eastern Turkey. As I understand the history, during WWI there was a panic in Vasbouragan caused by rumors of an impending Ottoman attack. This caused a massive evacuation of the area, under Russian troops, which came to be know as “the great retreat.” Thousands died, at least 150,000 Armenians were displaced, and the region was lost to Turkey. According to a colleague, the titles of each of these dances in mvmt. II have been “erased” from history. No one seems to know what these pieces are called but the music has survived and is only known by the region it was from. Despite their very joyous sound, there is a dark history behind these dances. I’m humbled by the provenance of this music and I took special care with arranging it. I hope that you might come hear it and see the amazing Sayat Nova Dancers on August 17th at DCR Boston Hatch Shell. Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 10.12.03 AM