Indeed the reverence for Johann Sebastian Bach in Western music circles approaches that of a deity, "the immortal god of harmony" as Beethoven once called him. Through his monumental Passions, Bach created a vehicle by which even the staunch atheist can transcend earthly woes and arrive at a place of awareness and wonder.
In Passio-Compassio, the closing concert of Lincoln Center's White Light Festival on November 19, Ensemble Sarband transports the audience to this place using Bach's Passions as a foundation, but also showing that there are other ways to travel there. The Ensemble, led by the inspiring Vladimir Ivanoff and featuring musicians from Germany, Lebanon and Turkey, will be joined by a jazz string quartet, a choir, and five members of the order commonly known as the Mevlevi whirling dervishes. Arabic and jazz arrangements from both of Bach's Passions as well as the Christmas Oratorio are interspersed with early Christian chants in Aramaic and traditional Turkish music.
At first glance, Bach's exacting counterpoint has little to do with the serpentine vocal lines of Middle Eastern music. After all, by the time Bach was born in 1685, the tide of the Ottoman Empire was already receding and there was very little cross-pollination of musical styles. Yet, as Lebanese vocalist Fadia El-Hage's plaintive alto blooms on the aria "Erbarme dich" from the St. Matthew Passion, the surface differences melt away, leaving a common ground for meditation.
For Jane Moss, Lincoln Center's Ehrenkranz Artistic Director and the visionary behind the White Light Festival, it was the ecstatic qualities of the program that made it the ideal closing concert for the Festival. "White light is about passing light through the many dimensions of our interior selves," she says. "In doing so we enlarge ourselves and experience a greater sense of communion with the world. The ecstatic, as manifested musically by Bach and physically by the whirling dervishes, is the ultimate expression of that."
Like white light, Ensemble Sarband's raison d'ê_tre encompasses far more than the classical ideals of flawless technique and elegant interpretation. Ivanoff, whose ponytail belies his rigorous academic bent, founded the Ensemble in 1986 as a way to unite his many seemingly disparate interests. Born in Bulgaria and now settled in Germany, he is a percussionist and lutenist who also conducts, composes, produces recordings and publishes academic papers, with a particular interest in early and Middle Eastern music. He believes strongly in the power of music to surmount conflict and make way for peace, which is the driving force behind the polyglot Ensemble Sarband. With Sarband, Ivanoff has created over a dozen evening-length concerts that often blend musical traditions from the three major cultures that intersect near his homeland: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
Articulating the rationale behind Passio-Compassio, Ivanoff upholds that suffering and passion spin in a vicious cycle, one that ultimately creates personal and political conflicts and can only be halted if we rise above it to find compassion.
"All human beings experience suffering regardless of their religious and cultural background," explains Ivanoff. "Art and religion are both capable of transcending the cycle of suffering and passion. The pure emotion of passion is transformed into a universal sphere of awareness, of perception of the other. Through art, passio becomes compassio."
The ritual of the whirling dervishes is a direct visual representation of this process. Wearing a white gown, which symbolizes death, a wide black cloak representing the grave, and a tall brown hat that stands in for the tombstone, the members of the Mevlevi Order, followers of the famed Sufi poet Rumi, participate in a musical ceremony called Sema. The whirling represents the four phases of the mystical journey towards enlightenment. Much like the Passion of Christ, the symbolic dance of the Mevlevi deals with themes of salvation through death.
Placing the two cultures on the same stage allows the piece to move beyond the idea of passion into something more universal in outlook. "Maybe in the end salvation is not as important as a better existence of man through feeling with and respecting the other," Ivanoff ruminates. In other words, we should strive for compassion.
"The Sufis and Bach take us to an extraordinary place and it is not a dissimilar place," agrees Moss. "They take us to a very universal site in our hearts and to be able to experience how both take us to that place is very special."
Bach purists who may be tempted to reject the musical concept of the program as new-age crossover can find solace in Ivanoff's own commitment to upholding the artistic integrity of each element. "The program is as big as you can get without losing the respect for high culture, deep spirituality, and true intercultural dialogue," he explains. Through Ivanoff's careful, critical attention and the high quality of the musical talent, Sarband's concerts remain firmly anchored in the realm of high culture. Sarband's previous appearances at Lincoln Center, as part of its Great Performers series in 2005 and at the Mostly Mozart Festival in 2006, were met with enthusiasm from both audiences and critics.
For Passio-Compassio, Ivanoff has enlisted the talents of the Munich-based Modern String Quartet, which approaches the classical repertoire much like jazz musicians approach the standards, setting them in fiery new arrangements. He's also bringing along a young vocal octet from Cologne, Vocanima K‹ln, which has earned accolades for its crystalline sound and insightful interpretations of the Baroque repertoire. Finally, a pair of jazz saxophonists join Sarband's core of Western and Middle Eastern musicians and vocalists, bringing a decidedly American form of ecstatic musical expression to the stage.
"Ecstasy is a very compelling human emotion that takes us, almost like a drug, most dramatically out of ourselves," says Moss. "With Passio-Compassio, the juxtaposition of different genres, and particularly of East and West, make it possible to tap into these experiences from many points of view."