A man on horseback
Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh will be one of the featured soloists in the opening concert of the Windham Orchestra’s 2014-15 season.

A man on horseback

From out of the West, Hugh Keelan rides again to lead another season of the Windham Orchestra

BRATTLEBORO — Hugh Keelan feels wonderful as he returns to Brattleboro from a stay at a dude ranch in Arizona to conduct a world premiere for the first concert of the new season of the Windham Orchestra.

Keelan had spent time out West learning how to ride a horse. This adventure was not all fun and games but actually was supposed to be instructive.

“The idea is to look at my leadership skills,” explains Keelan. “The thinking goes that if you mishandle a horse, it indicates how you may mishandle a groups of people, such as the Windham Orchestra.”

Keelan can show what he has learned as Windham Orchestra's new season opens the weekend of Nov. 21 and 22, with a varied concert with the “Gypsy Baron Overture” by Johann Strauss, and two short symphonies: the “Paris” by Mozart and the “Unfinished” by Schubert.

However, the centerpiece of the concert undoubtedly will be the world premiere of the “Concerto for Flute and String Orchestra” by Syrian clarinet soloist, composer, and improviser Kinan Azmeh. The flute soloist will be Melissa Richmond, a member of the Windham Orchestra.

For its 45th season, the Windham Orchestra will present four commissioned world premieres, one at each of its concert programs.

“All four premieres are by composers of some significance on the global or national stage,” Keelan says, “and at the same time have some ties to area in which we live.“

Keelan writes in a press release that Windham Orchestra's first concert of the season provides something for everyone: “humor, a 'rush,' deep aesthetic contemplation, stress relief, you name it, it's there in the music. Every work is a window into what is vivid and important to us as humans, and we look forward to your being with us as we deal with masterpieces old and new together.”

Friday's concert will be held at the Opera House in Claremont, N.H., as part of the town's 250th birthday celebration.

Saturday's concert, at the Brattleboro Area Middle School Multipurpose Roon, is preceded by a lecture by the composer in the school Chorus Room at 6:15 p.m. Both concerts start at 7:30.

“Kinan Azmeh is from Syria, but he spends a lot of time in America,” says Keelan. “His 'Concerto for Flute and String Orchestra' was co-commissioned by the Windham Orchestra and for the 250th anniversary of Claremont. The literal world premiere will therefore be in Claremont.”

Azmeh is artistic director of the Damascus Festival Chamber Music Ensemble, guest faculty at Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music, and a member of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble.

He has a distinctive sound that moves across different musical genres. He is fast gaining international recognition for his compositions, which include solo, orchestra, and chamber music; film scores; live illustration; and electronica.

Azmeh has been connected to the Southern Vermont and New Hampshire area since he came as a teenager to participate in the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music's Playing for Peace program in Nelson, N.H.

In 2006, a performance at the West Claremont (N.H.) Center for Music and the Arts Summer Concert Series led to a deep admiration for that organization's mission to bring music and arts to the underserved community of Claremont. For the past six summers, he has participated in their live performances and educational workshops.

Keelan notes that Azmeh's concerto has moods ranging from the fantastic to the introspective, with sound moving from soft to loud.

“The music shows a free flow of nervous energy which ends with a feeling of transported ecstasy,” he says.

Keenan writes, “Against a background message of peace, Kinan Azmeh's 'Flute Concerto' jolts us into a thrillingly emotional polycultural sound-world of driving intensity and deep introspection. As Azmeh's stated artistic goal is to cross any and all boundaries, he identifies political, geographical, historical, performance, compositional and improvisational limits in the world, and is determined to merge and transcend them.”

Keelan says he feels that the concert is chock full of treats, like in a candy store: “On one shelf you have chocolates, another caramels, and the third honeyed confections.”

“For treats, take for instance the Strauss piece. It is one of the great comic overtures, both tender and hilarious. It is a riot. Although initially composed for the now-classic operetta, it often is performed as a freestanding overture by symphony orchestra.”

The brief 'Paris Symphony” by Mozart “may be short but not a note is wasted,” says Keelan, calling it “by turns monumental, thoughtful, witty, and brilliant,” and “summons the Windham Orchestra's virtuosity and breadth of accomplishment.”

This work will be complemented by a piece at the center of the symphonic repertoire: Schubert's “Unfinished Symphony.”

Keelan writes that this symphony creates a space of “supreme elevation. We are left entranced, with a vision of the sublime and the direct experience of profound, complete peace.”

He says he believes that there can be a certain difficulty in performing such a familiar piece of music.

“The 'Unfinished' is a quite available work, which many in the audience recognize. Consequently, it is a very hard piece to perform. The task of the performer is to move its audience out of its preconceptions of such a work so they might see something new in it. We hope to make such a warhorse live right now, and move the jaded beyond a blasé, 'Oh, I already know that!'”

Keelan says he feels that works such as the “Unfinished” are a special challenge for him: “I have performed this Schubert piece many times, but I do not want merely to recycle what I did in the past.”

To get beyond such complacency, Keelan perhaps has used some of the leadership skills that he picked up at the dude ranch in Arizona.

“I need to listen to the orchestra's ideas and how they play,” he says. “Conducting is essentially the art of listening. Once you really listen to the musicians with whom you are working, you can then build a new and fresh interpretation of the music.”

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