East of the River puts modern spin on music written long ago


Daphna Mor and Nina Stern. Submitted photo.

Kelsey BurrittStaff Writer

East of the East River in Brooklyn, N.Y., recorder virtuosos Daphna Mor and Nina Stern are part of a living tradition.

“There is this concept of the Middle East, east of where we are now, east of the Western world,” Mor said. “Nina and I just brought the New York elements to it.”

And so East of the River was born, an ensemble exploring traditional repertory from east of the Danube while incorporating personal styles from their backgrounds in classical, jazz and world music. They will perform at 4 p.m. today in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall with the first concert of the 2012 Logan Chamber Music Series.

“All of this music was written so long ago, and yet when we present it to an audience, we want to make it come alive,” Stern said.

Mor and Stern first crossed paths in their solo careers, performing together with the New York Philharmonic and in Carnegie Hall. After learning of their mutual interest in world music, they decided to collaborate and formed East of the River with a 2009 debut album.

“The core sound of the band is really the two recorders and percussion,” Stern said. “And then we add instruments.”

East of the River currently includes founders Mor and Stern, kanun player Tamer Pinarbasi, percussionist Shane Shanahan, and violinist and oud player Jesse Kotansky.

Born in Turkey, Pinarbasi has been praised as one of the greatest kanun virtuosos in the world. The kanun is an ancient Middle Eastern instrument shaped like a trapezoid with more than 70 strings. The instrument has small levers called mandals, which divide each semitone into a microtone, allowing Pinarbasi to play virtually any scale.

“You play with him once and you want to just keep playing with him,” Stern said of Pinarbasi.

The average kanun player plucks the strings with only two fingers and then uses plectra, or picks. Pinarbasi, however, has developed his own technique employing all his fingers.

Shanahan is a multi-percussionist perhaps most well-known for playing in Yo-Yo Ma’s “Silk Road Ensemble,” with which he has previously performed at Chautauqua.

With the number of world percussionists out there, Mor said, it is not easy to find one that is a good fit.

“Shane is a perfect fit,” she said.

Stern echoed her co-founder’s praise, citing Shanahan’s unique style formed by combining techniques from percussion traditions around the world.

“His palette is just extraordinary,” Stern said. “It’s quite amazing to behold.”

Shanahan recently co-curated a 40-week concert series for “Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World” in the American Museum of Natural History. He also performed in director Sam Mendes’ productions of As You Like It and The Tempest in London.

Kotansky, the ensemble’s violinist and oud player, is the latest addition to the ensemble, but he is no stranger to the music.

“He’s been on stages playing this repertory literally since he was 3,” Stern said.

Kotansky had two traveling Balkan dance instructors as parents, and he was incorporated into their act at a young age playing the violin. The oud, his second instrument in the concert, is a stringed instrument reminiscent of the lute used in North African and Middle Eastern music.

“We all sort of learn from each other,” Stern said, “and not only learn from each other but create this style where we’re bouncing off each other and using all of our strengths.”

Both Mor and Stern started learning the recorder in third grade.

Mor, a native of Tel Aviv, grew up surrounded by traditional and popular Israeli music. For her, the recorder was a natural choice.

“Because of the open holes, you have options for bending notes or playing quarter tones that are not part of Western music,” Mor said. “The style fits a lot of different traditions.”

Stern first began her music career by playing the piano, but it soon became clear that her passion was for the recorder. She studied historical performance and earned a Soloist’s Degree at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Basel, Switzerland, where she was classically schooled in Baroque repertory.

“It’s natural if you’re curious about the recorder to get interested in that repertory,” Stern said. “What’s more unusual is that I got interested in some of this traditional repertory that East of the River performs.”

The traditional repertory is Armenian, Middle Eastern and Balkan music, which Stern was researching for S’cool Sounds, an award-winning education initiative she founded for inner-city public schools in New York City.

“One of my goals, because I started the program post-9/11, was that our children learn as much about the rest of the world and other cultures as possible,” Stern said.

She had previously enjoyed traditional Balkan and Middle Eastern music as a spectator. After discovering more virtuosic pieces too difficult for her students, however, Stern decided she would take a stab at performing it herself.

This afternoon’s performance will be divided into sets according to musical tradition: Medieval Western European, both ancient and contemporary Armenian; Middle Eastern; and Balkan. Though much of the music may appear contemporary on paper, it has been passed down through oral tradition for centuries. Most was not transcribed until the beginning of the 20th century.

“Western music was written down,” Stern said. “Other parts of our repertory weren’t written down until much later, but the forms and the traditions and the scales are just as ancient.”

The program’s medieval set is composed of two estampies, or dance forms. They relate directly to the Balkan dances.

“All the sets relate to each other in these dance forms that are similar in spirit, similar in function,” Stern said.

Mor described the concert as a musical journey that would expand throughout the different traditions the ensemble explores.

“My grandparents immigrated from Bulgaria to Israel,” Mor said, “so they brought their Balkan sound with them. So much of that music, and of course the Middle Eastern music, was incorporated into our music.”

The Armenian music originates from medieval times and from 18th-century bard Sayat Nova, who preserved the text of his pieces in poetry. The accompanying music was passed down through oral tradition.

“The fifth song I play in the medieval set sounds like it could be Gregorian chant,” Stern said, “but Sayat Nova is more rhythmical. The scales used in that music are related scales that are used in the two Arabic sets that we do.”

The Arabic set will include samai, a more rhythmic form, and longa, another dance form, faster and in two beats per measure.

“We have a personal and a unique sound,” Mor said. “It is more than the traditional sound.”

Tickets for the 4 p.m. performance will be distributed at 8:30 a.m. on the brick walk outside the Colonnade. In case of rain, tickets will be sold at 8 a.m.