HANOVER, NH—A gem of Central Asian and Islamic music and storytelling makes a rare Western appearance in Layla and Majnun [mazh-NOON], an enthralling new hour-long chamber opera by the Mark Morris Dance Group and The Silk Road Ensemble with “living treasure” singers Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova, coming to The Moore Theater of the Hop Friday, January 6, at 8 pm, and Saturday, January 7, at 2 and 8 pm.
This is the East Coast premiere of the work, which was co-commissioned by the Hop. The work unfolds against a boldly hued backdrop, the 10 musicians and two singers at center with the 16 dancers performing around them.
“The emphasis is all on emotion…the staging…is visually beautiful,” wrote The New York Times. “Mr. Morris’s choreography deconstructs and distills the poetic legend with charm and taste.”
Wrote The San Francisco Chronicle, “Do we watch the incomparable musicians? Or do we fix our gaze on the amazing dancers…?…You find yourself immersed in something organic and wonderful…In its rigor and sensuality, the dance seems to take wing from the vocalizations.”
The project brings together artists known to and beloved by Hop audiences: Morris’ group has performed numerous times here, as has The Silk Road Ensemble, a collective of internationally renowned musicians from the Middle East and Asia as well as Western musicians, co-founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Dartmouth professor and ethnomusicologist Theodore Levin. The Qasimovs performed here in 2010. The ensemble for this performance includes previous Hop performers and Silk Road members Colin Jacobsen and Nicholas Cords; Chinese pipa player Wu Man; and shakuhachi player Kojiro Umezaki, a graduate of Dartmouth’s masters program in digital musics.
Along with the performance, the Hop also offers an intermediate-level dance master class with MMDG ($10), and, in collaboration with the Hood Museum of Art at its Hood Downtown gallery space, a pre-show talk about the Layla and Majnun legend and the art it has inspired. Also at the Hood gallery is an art exhibition of works by contemporary Iranian painter Bahar Behbahani. The latter two events are free.
Layla and Majnun has its roots in an ancient story adopted over the centuries by Muslim, Sufi and Hindu storytellers and writers and is especially important in lands once ruled by successive Persian empires—particularly Azerbaijan. Dubbed by Lord Byron “the Romeo and Juliet of the East,” it tells of Layla and Qays, in love from childhood but not allowed to unite. Qays (called Majnun, which means “possessed”) is perceived to be mad in his obsession with Layla. Layla is married off to another and Majnun becomes a hermit, devoting himself to writing verses about his profound love of Layla.
The story has been reinterpreted in countless poems, paintings, plays, songs, musical compositions, television dramas and films, but rarely have these representations been shared with the Western world.
One of the greatest retellings is the opera Layla and Majnun by Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyli. Considered the Muslim world’s first opera, it premiered in 1908 in Baku, Azerbaijan, when that region was part of the Russian Empire. Hajibeyli—who grew up immersed in Azeri classical and folk music as well as being schooled in Western classical instruments—conceived of his opera as an East-meets-West work. He created an epic with specific sections composed for arias and Western instruments and other sections reserved for the traditional Azerbaijani singing style mugham [moo-HUM], which features searingly emotive improvisation on haunting modes and scales. A cornerstone of Azerbaijani culture, this opera has been performed annually at the opening of each season of the Theater of Opera and Ballet in Baku. For the past two decades, these performances have featured Alim Qasimov, considered a Living National Treasure of Azerbaijan for his preservation of mugham.
Sharing this work with the wider world has long been a goal for Qasimov and his daughter—and fellow mugham master—Fargana Qasimova through their work as regular collaborators with The Silk Road Ensemble. In 2008, the Qasimovs and The Silk Road Ensemble premiered a shortened chamber arrangement of the opera, which normally runs three-and-a-half hours and involves a symphony orchestra and chorus as well as a full complement of Azerbaijani instruments. The new version runs about one hour and features the Qasimovs and Silk Road Ensemble musicians on traditional Asian instruments (kamancheh, tar, shakuhachi and pipa) combined with Western strings (two violins, viola, cello and contrabass).
Now they have unveiled a full-scale theatrical setting of the work in collaboration with Mark Morris, internationally celebrated for elegant, lyrical and accessible work set to exquisite music of many traditions, performed live. Said Ma in a promotional statement, “Morris’ deep respect for and knowledge of traditions in both music and dance–he never plays tourist but is an artist, so that any tradition Mark incorporates becomes organic to his work–as well as his extensive experience directing epic love stories, from Dido and Aeneas to the recently discovered score of Romeo and Juliet, make him the only choice to re-imagine Layla and Majnun for a 21st century audience.”
At a time when the West struggles with misrepresentations of Islamic history and culture, this project seeks to illuminate, said Morris in a promotional video about the work. “I’m not an overtly political artist; I very often think that doesn’t work but I made the conscious decision to do the piece not just because of the very, very disturbing and strange politics and Islamophobia that’s prevalent but also because it’s such beautiful, profound, moving music that wouldn‘t suffer from staging and choreography, it would actually enhance it and make it more comprehensible for a non-Azerbaijani audience to get the message of it, which is a message of profound, abundant, eternal love.”
Morris brought to the project British painter Howard Hodgkin, who has designed other shows for Morris and is also a devoted collector of Mughal miniatures—the jewel tones of which are reflected in Hodgkin’s Central Asian-inspired costumes and abstract-impressionist set.
More about the Artistic partners
Mark Morris (director and choreographer) has been hailed as the “the most prodigiously gifted choreographer of the post-Balanchine era” (Time). Since founding MMDG in 1980, Morris has created over 150 works, including 20 ballets, and 20 operas. He has been described as “an innovator and a conservative, a satirist and a romantic” (New Yorker) who “easily ranks among the top five American choreographers… and has already carved a major place for himself in the history of modern dance” (The Denver Post). Renowned as an intensely musical choreographer, Morris is undeviating in his devotion to music. He has conducted performances for MMDG since 2006, served as music director of the 2013 Ojai Music Festival, and continues to work extensively in opera, directing and choreographing at the Metropolitan Opera and the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, among others. Morris was named Fellow of the MacArthur Foundation, and has received twelve honorary doctorates to date. In recent years, he has received the Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement, the Leonard Bernstein Lifetime Achievement Award for the Elevation of Music in Society, the International Society for the Performing Artists’ Distinguished Artist Award, the Benjamin Franklin Laureate Prize for Creativity, the Cal Performances Award of Distinction in the Performing Arts, and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s Gift of Music Award.
Howard Hodgkin (set and costume designer) was born in London in 1932 and studied at the Camberwell School of Art and the Bath Academy of Art, Corsham. In 1984, he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale and won the Turner Prize the following year. He was knighted in 1992 and made a Companion of Honour in 2003. An exhibition of his Paintings 1975-1995 opened in 1995 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and toured to museums in Fort Worth and Düsseldorf, and to London’s Hayward Gallery. A retrospective in 2006 was shown in Dublin, London and Madrid. Sir Hodgkin’s theatrical projects include, for Richard Alston, the set and costume design for Night Music with the Ballet Rambert and Pulcinella, which was filmed by the BBC and released on DVD; and, MMDG, Rhymes with Silver (1997), Kolam (2002), and Mozart Dances (2006). Passionate about Indian culture, geography, and history for most of his life, he is a leading collector of mughal miniature paintings.
Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova (featured performers): Born in 1957 in a village 100 kilometers north of Baku, Alim grew up on a Soviet commune where he worked alongside his parents from a young age. A gifted singer from his childhood, he eventually enrolled in the state music school in Baku, spending four years studying the exacting classical Azerbaijani song style of mugham. He began singing professionally while Azerbaijan was still under Soviet rule and mugham was not supported by the state. However, Qasimov’s growing popularity was accompanied by declining Soviet influence and in 1983 he won a major national singing competition as well as awards at the 1983 and 1987 UNESCO Symposia on Traditional and Modern Art of Central Asian and Asian Countries, which allowed him to tour both inside and beyond his own country and the Soviet Union, to enthusiastic acclaim. Around 2000, he began performing and recording with Fargana (born in 1989). The two have continued to tour worldwide and collaborate not only withThe Silk Road Ensemble but also the Kronos Quartet.
Johnny Gandelsman & Colin Jacobsen (musical arrangement) are both founding members of the string quartet Brooklyn Rider. The son of a musical family from Moscow, by way of Israel, violinist and composer Gandelsman’s musical voice reflects the artistic collaborations he has been a part of since moving to the United States in 1995. Through his work with such artists as Yo-Yo Ma, Bono, Osvaldo Golijov, David Byrne, Béla Fleck, Kayhan Kalhor, Suzanne Vega, James Levine, Mark Morris, Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova, Nigel Kennedy and Martin Hayes, Gandelsman has been able to integrate a wide range of creative sensibilities into his own point of view. A passionate advocate for new music, he has premiered dozens of works written for Brooklyn Rider and The Silk Road Ensemble, including works by Vijay Iyer, Fleck, Daniel Cords, Gabriel Kahane, Colin Jacobsen, John Zorn, Ethan Iverson, Padma Newsome and Bill Frisell.
Violinist and composer Jacobsen is “one of the most interesting figures on the classical music scene” (Washington Post) and is a touring member The Silk Road Ensemble and an Avery Fisher Career Grant-winning violinist. His work as a composer developed as a natural outgrowth of his chamber and orchestral collaborations with both Western and non-Western musicians, and recently included Three Miniatures, which Brooklyn Rider premiered at the reopening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Islamic art galleries; and, in collaboration with Iran’s Siamak Aghaei, the Persian folk-inflected Ascending Bird, which he performed as soloist with a YouTube Symphony Orchestra concert that was streamed live by millions of viewers worldwide. His work for dance and theater includes Chalk and Soot, a collaboration with Dance Heginbotham, and music for Compagnia de’ Colombari’s theatrical production of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself.