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Music Unites Traditions in ‘Playing for Peace’

It began, like so many things these days, on Facebook.

Kareem Roustom, an Emmy-nominated Syrian composer, was on the social site one day when he came across a performance by a friend. It was immediately recognizable — an old nationalistic melody that Roustom would hear incessantly on TV as a kid as he waited for the cartoons to come on.

He always viewed the song, with its ultra-serious pro-Syria propaganda, as a little silly. But this new performance was slow, mournful. It was, in a way, the beginning of Traces.

Traces, which Roustom wrote for clarinet, piano and string quartet, will have its world premiere on Wednesday at the Hopkins Center for the Arts as part of a “Playing for Peace” concert that unites Roustom, Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, Israeli-born pianist Sally Pinkas and New Hampshire’s Apple Hill String Quartet. Pinkas, the Hop’s pianist-in-residence, will also perform the 1944 Piano Quintet by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Jewish composer from Poland.

Roustom saw the somber Facebook re-imagining of the propaganda piece shortly after the uprising began in Syria in 2011. His past half-dozen or so pieces have taken the uprising as a point of inspiration, he said, but Roustom wasn’t suddenly drawn to composing based on his home country.

“It’s part of my identity,” Roustom said. “It’s part of my heritage and musical practice, too. It’s not something on a shelf that I pull off once in a while.”

In Traces, which Pinkas described as “almost like a dirge, a lament,” Roustom said he attempted to layer music that represents current events with music that reflects the land’s distant past. The melody is modern, but the rhythmic meters are ancient.

He identified with a standard of pre-Islamic poetry, in which the poet (in Traces, played narratively by the piano) returns to a campsite to see his beloved (the clarinet), only to find the campsite has been broken down and abandoned. All that is left are the traces.

“That metaphor for me, I think, speaks to my experience of what’s happening to the Syria I knew,” he said.

He left that Syria, one that looked down upon music as a career, in the mid-1980s, and ended up in Wareham, Mass., near Cape Cod. He was in seventh grade and gravitated toward music, free from the influence of his native culture. But he still visited Syria nearly every summer. Since then, he said, his musical direction has been “progress on these two paths.”

He met Pinkas, who also is a professor of music at Dartmouth, a little over a year ago. She had been teaching at Apple Hill in Nelson, N.H. for a couple of years, and wanted to bring some of the performances into the Upper Valley.

Pinkas and Roustom clicked quickly.

“Over the years, the world has sort of shrunk,” Pinkas said. “And I have listened to a lot more music. What Kareem is doing with his piece, rather ingeniously, is translating his influences into more mainstream Western music.”

She likened Traces to the work of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, who was influenced by the folk music of his culture.

Both she and Roustom noted that the process of working together, and with clarinetist Azmeh, was simply the process of musicians working together. “Playing for Peace” is meant to connect musicians from countries in conflict, and Pinkas’ Israeli heritage and Roustom’s and Azmeh’s Syrian background does that. But as musicians they work together just fine. “ It doesn’t have any different meaning than anyone else I would be playing with,” Pinkas said. “And that’s the beauty of it.”

And Roustom’s piece, inspired by his connection to his home country as it is, isn’t necessarily about the country.

“I didn’t write a piece about the Arab-Israeli conflict,” he said, but rather a piece about loss, change and grief. “Something that anyone can really connect to.”

“Playing for Peace” will take place at the Hop’s Spaulding Auditorium at 7 p.m. on Wednesday. Tickets range from $21 to $27 for general admission and can be purchased from hop.dartmouth.edu. At noon on Tuesday, The Apple Hill Quartet and Executive and Artistic Director Leonard Matczynski will host a free talk in the Tucker Foundation Living Room, which Roustom, Pinkas and Azmeh will attend, about global collaboration through chamber music.

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.