Thursday 7 November 2013

Foray into folk: Lily Afshar plays guitar

Lily AfsharIf you want to hear beautiful Persian folk music played on guitar then last nights’ (Saturday 2 November) performance at St Johns Smith Square was for you. Guitarist Lily Afshar played solos and duets and was then joined by the Collaborative Orchestra under their artistic director Andrew Farid.

Lily Afshar was mesmeric and had the audience literally humming along. Even if you weren’t familiar with the Persian and Azerbaijani ballads they had a restful timelessness which spoke of both melancholy and happiness. Use of complex techniques lent the guitar different voices, adding a subtle layer to the songs. Lily was born in Iran but her grandparents were from Azerbaijan so her transcriptions of these ballads must be close to her heart.

As expected the concert started almost 10 minutes late and throughout the first piece people were still arriving, phones were going off, and people were squabbling over seats. But Lily ignored them and the audience quickly settled down to enjoy themselves. This was a concert about home and family and the audience’s appreciation was lively.

The two sets of ballads were interspersed with Lily’s reworking of three movements of Bach’s first cello suite (BMV1007): Prelude, Allemande and Gigue. These demonstrated her technical expertise but lacked the focus and life of the folk songs. Bach’s writing very much takes into account the physical properties of the instrument he was writing for. To take a piece written so that it is under the hand for four strings and a bow, and move that out to six strings with different spacings and no bow adds another layer of challenge. Lily used some nice effects which she had previously shown in the folk songs to great effect.

It seemed for the two duets with Alina Hiltunen (leader of the Collaborative Orchestra) that they had chosen one each. The ‘Sonata Concertata Op. 61 for guitar and violin’ by Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840), like the Bach was perfunctorily played – Alina was hampered by a music stand which was far too short for her. But they made a spirited job of the second movement ‘Bordello, 1990’ from ‘Histoire du Tango’ by Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992). This was originally written in 1986 for flute and guitar, which can be heard from the typical flute-style runs, but the violin substitutes in very well.

The coldness of the hall was obviously playing havoc with the instruments – meaning that the performers had to retune between every movement. Also, I could hear Lily as I was sat near the front however St John's Smith Square is a big hall and I wondered how well the solo pieces and duets carried to those at the back. Thankfully she had a microphone for the orchestral numbers with the Collaborative Orchestra.

After the orchestra performed a quick romp through the overture to ‘Die Fledermaus’ by Johann Strauss (1825-1899) (very topical as I went to see the ENO perform the opera last month – see our first and second reviews) Lily joined them on stage for the ‘Concieto de Aranjuez’ by Joaquin Rodrigo (1901– 1999).

Spanish born Joaquin Rodrigo became blind after catching diphtheria as a child, but this did not stop him from a successful career in music. ‘Concieto de Aranjuez’, written in 1939, is perhaps his most well known work, especially the second movement, the famous ‘Adagio’, which is often heard in films and on television. Rodrigo described the concieto as an evocation of the gardens of the Palacio Real de Aranjuez and, in 1991, in recognition of his contribution to Spanish classical music, he was made the Marqués de los Jardines de Aranjuez by King Juan Carlos.

Rodrigo composed this work sympathetically; the guitar is mainly a soloist rather than having to battle against the orchestra. Nevertheless the microphone helped bring up the level of the guitar to one where it was not dwarfed by the orchestra. You can see part of this on YouTube:

The final piece of the concert, the ‘Persian March’ by Johann Strauss quotes a section of the Persian national anthem. Written in 1864 for the ninth of Strauss' summer concert series in the Russian town of Pavlovsk, it was enthusiastically played by the Collaborative Orchestra. The same year Strauss was awarded the Persian Order of the Sun by his Imperial Majesty the Shah of Persia.

The audience would happily have stayed longer, but after a brief recap the concert was over.

You can find Lily on Facebook.
Review by Hilary Glover

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