Sinfonietta brings music of the Arab Spring to downtown Chicago

By Donna Marbury

To Simon Shaheen, music is a sonic melting pot mixed with Arabic, classical and jazz seasonings. He is known across the world for his delicate playing of the oud, an instrument found in traditional Arabic music, but can switch just as masterfully to the violin.

Simon Shaheen will make his Chicago debut with the Chicago Sinfonietta’s Arab Spring concert.

As a professor currently teaching both at the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music, Shaheen pushes musical boundaries to include Middle Eastern, South American and jazz alongside Western classics.

As a musician, he has recorded four albums, his most significant being Blue Flame which had 11 Grammy nominations. He has performed on stages from the Carnegie to Cairo, gaining many honors including the National Heritage Award at the White House in 1994.

Shaheen’s Oud Concierto is one of a trio of pieces selected for the Chicago Sinfonietta’s Arab Spring: Political Awakenings performance on Friday, April 19 at the Harris Theater in Chicago and Saturday, April 20 at the Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville. The show, which also features Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio and William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, finds the similarities in Arab, African American and Western forms of music across time and cultures. interviewed Shaheen about his the origins of his melodic music tastes and why the oud fits seamlessly among other traditional Western instruments. How did you compose the Oud Concerto?

Simon Shaheen: Part of my work is composition, in classical, contemporary, jazz fusion and traditional styles. I grew up with all these different styles. As a composer, I just took from one style and other because it is in my blood. It is music to me.

The oud is a central instrument in Arabic tradition. The sound of the oud is beautiful and powerful. It has an open fingerboard with no fret, like a guitar, so it allows me to play the regular sounds that we hear in the symphonic world. What’s important here is to understand the sound, and to understand the colors and projection of the sound and see how it works with the symphonic sound. The minute you know the nature of the instrument and the nature of symphonic sound, it’s not that difficult to marry both and get the best out of the sounds.


CM: What are the similarities between Arabic, jazz and classical music and how do they fit together in this piece?

SS: For example, in this piece, I use Western classical forms, like the concerto. I layout the themes, recaps and changes—those changes are based on Arabic modulations. There are some melodic modulations and some harmonic modulations. There are of course rhythmic changes in the piece that are based on some complex Arabic rhythms.

CM: You also are very passionate about improvisation in your music. Tell us about how that is used in the piece.

SS: As far as the improvisation—the jazzy parts—whenever I reach cadenza I come up with it at the moment of the performance, so it’s nothing that is pre-composed. [It’s] whatever I feel as a result of the performance of the orchestra, the energy of the people, and the sound of the hall. If you read about how musicians performed in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries in Europe, like Mozart, when it came to the cadenza, they improvised. This is a lost art in Western classical music.


CM: When did you begin fusing these different types of music together?

SS: I came to New York in 1980 from Palestine. A few years later, I started to meet with all the musicians in New York, [there are] so many people who lived in the city or passed by the city.

In collaboration, we found the common thread. In terms of compositions, I know what will work and what doesn’t work. Because we all performed together for together for a long time, they were willing to understand other than jazz and Western music. This helped very much in fusing the music together.

In 2001, we came up with a recording called Blue Flame. This recording was one of the important recordings that defined the concept of cross-cultural composition, a fusion.


CM: Is there a different type of energy from a jazz audience versus a classical audience?

SS: In classical music, the audience is different today than what we read about 100 years ago. One hundred years ago, the audience was involved in the performance. Meaning, they reacted. They expressed their happiness or their sadness. They were vocal. They were a part of the performance. Like today’s audience listening to jazz. If they liked a lick or improvisation, they would express a feeling verbally, clap or hum.

Today they don’t because the audience is told how to behave in a concert hall, which is something that is not natural, for me at least. On the other hand, they are attentive and are listening with all of their senses. If I am playing with a symphony, and the audience wants to express something, I would be more than happy. I don’t have any problem with it.


For tickets and information, visit


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