All Classical Radio James Depreist

There is joy in replanting: Kareem Roustom at WVCMF

A Q&A with Roustom, composer-in-residence for this year’s Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival.

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Composer Kareem Roustom. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Composer Kareem Roustom. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Syrian-born Kareem Roustom’s music is front and center at this season’s 8th Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival during the first three weekends of August at three wineries near Portland. Concerts are Saturdays and Sundays in the early evening at Appassionata Estate/J. Christopher Wines, Sokol Blosser Winery and Archery Summit. The music is served with glasses of wine to match its vibe. See www.wvchambermusic.org for more information and tickets.

Roustom, a prolific and globally recognized composer who teaches at Tufts University in Boston, Mass., will be on hand the first weekend, Aug. 5 and 6, at Appassionata Estate/J. Christopher Wines, which will end his week as the festival’s composer-in-residence. His music – programmed with various pieces by composers from Ludwig van Beethoven to Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw to Portland violist Kenji Bunch – includes the first weekend’s Four Dances from Clorinda Agonistes, a re-imagination of Claudio Monteverdi’s “Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” that Roustom resets as a story of a contemporary Muslim arriving in Europe.

Most exciting is a world premiere he wrote for this year’s festival titled Syrian Folk Songs for String Quartet, featuring Syrian folk songs from four regions. Roustom will be around the winery on Aug. 5 to answer questions, discuss his music, and celebrate with pizza and another glass of wine after the concert. As has been tradition for the past few years to commemorate the composer-in-residence, Appassionata/J. Christopher Wines is doing a special bottling of pinot noir called “Bayyati,” named for an Arabic musical scale that Roustom uses in his compositions.

Roustom’s Letters from Home is featured the second weekend, Aug. 12 and Aug. 13, at Sokol Blosser Winery, and his String Quartet No. 1 Shades of Night will be played Aug. 19 and Aug. 20 at Archery Summit.

Known as a fluid and genre-crossing composer who has written for Kronos Quartet, films, and number of symphony and chamber orchestras, he and his music speak to both his home country, Syria, and to his current life in Boston. In an interview with WVCMF co-artistic director Sasha Callahan, he talks about the “terroir” of his life in both places. “It’s like taking a vine from France and replanting it and see what happens. I’m a bit jealous of things that remain in place for a long time — many people are denied that. But there is joy in replanting. How does a grape respond to new soil?” 

Below is an interview with Oregon Arts Watch conducted in mid-July.

Oregon ArtsWatch: Why did you move to the U.S. from Syria, and when? 

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Kareem Roustom: My mother is American and my father, who passed away in 2009, was Syrian. She married him in Syria, lived there for 26 years, and had six children there. I suppose that at a certain point towards the end of those years, she wanted to move back to be near her parents, who were getting older, so we moved to the U.S. when I was about 13.

(Editor’s note: Roustom was born in 1971.)

OAW: You live in Boston and teach at Tufts. What does your teaching title mean — “Professor of Practice of Music”?

KR: I suppose it means that I am practicing my craft in the field.

OAW: Who are your influences? Favorite composers?

KR: Too many to mention from both western and near eastern practices, but from the latter, I’d have to say Benjamin Britten’s music has made a deep impression on me, but also music by Ravel and Debussy, as well as the composer/conductor Oliver Knussen and others. From the Arab music side “composers,” for many years, were what western audiences would call song writers, but they wrote songs that occupied an interesting space between popular and art music. Often, they would do both and reach wide audiences. Musicians like the Egyptians Riyad Al-Sunbati and Mohammad Al-Qasabgi are favorites, but I’ve also been studying a lot of rural folk music, and Eastern Orthodox sacred music. Often, no one really knows who composed this music. Here it is re-composed every time someone performs it. So, I suppose I am following in that tradition when I do that. Examples of this can be heard in my Aleppo Songs for solo piano, and Gnizo for violin and percussion, or in more abstract ways, like the middle movement of my Violin Concerto No. 1.

OAW: You play the oud; what instruments do you compose on? 

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KR: Pencil and paper and then I pluck a few notes on the piano. It is vital to hear it in your head before you write it down.

OAW: When and how did you discover you could compose? 

KR: I’m still learning how to compose, but I forge ahead, nonetheless.

OAW: With students, how do you encourage them to compose?

KR: To make time to listen to music, first and foremost. It is surprising how few students who want to compose acoustic/orchestral music carve out the time to just listen.

OAW: How do you know Sasha Callahan and Leo Eguchi, co-artistic directors of Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival? 

KR: Through the Boston music scene, and my youngest daughter studies cello with Leo.

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(Editor’s note: Aside from co-directing WVCMF and choosing wine matches for the music, Eguchi plays cello in WVCMF.)

OAW: I assume Boston is a hotbed of classical music (a bit of jazz, too).

KR: Yes. More than a bit of jazz, though, sadly, many of the great jazz clubs have shuttered. However, there is music from Ghana, from Turkey, the Arab world, an excellent traditional Armenian dance troupe and much more.

OAW: How does your music evoke place and homeland?

KR: This can happen in abstract and opaque ways, perhaps only hinting at a particular musical color, or in very overt ways, like re-imagining well known folk songs. However, my music can also be very distant from that musical language of the Arab Near East.

OAW: Where does nostalgia fit into your music?

KR: When it is evoked, it is built into the emotional fabric of the music. I suppose that on some level I’m not always aware that I’m doing this.

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OAW: How do you feel about conducting your pieces?

KR: I have done a little bit of it and I’m eager to continue to do so. I think it is really important for composers to understand the performance aspect of music-making.

OAW: What should we listen for in your music to pick up the east-west influences? Subtle or obvious?

KR: Both subtle, obvious, and at times, none at all. 

OAW: You had a piece you commissioned by Daniel Barenboim. How did that work? Can you speak to how music crosses borders?

KR: Yes, I was introduced to Daniel Barenboim in 2013 when the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra was on tour here. He asked me to send him some of my music, which I did. A few months later, I received an offer for a commission from him, and he and West-Eastern Divan Orchestra toured with it in 2014 to some of the biggest venues in classical music. In 2015 he commissioned a brass quintet from me and then in 2017, he commissioned a violin concerto from me, which I wrote for his son, Michael. This work was premiered in 2019 in Berlin and performed again in 2022 in Rotterdam. I am incredibly grateful for his enthusiasm for my work.

As far as borders are concerned, they are artificial; a construct of the mind. Music travels with people and people are constantly on the move and have been for tens of thousands of years. Sometimes they have to climb fences, go around barriers, or forge across deserts, jungles, and rushing rivers to do so. What I do, I suppose in a very small way, is rooted in that same desire/need to move.

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OAW: Music plans for the future?

KR: After WVCMF, I travel to the Grand Teton Music Festival for the world-premiere of a new song cycle for mezzo-soprano and orchestra (details here and here). Later in August I travel to Estonia for a performance of a large-scale work for women’s chorus and string orchestra (details here). Otherwise, in the works are my first solo album of chamber music, a new work for choir, French horn and string orchestra, a trumpet concerto and a large-scale work for chamber group and dancers, among other things that will keep me busy through early 2025. Updates can be found on my website: www.kr-music.com.

OAW: Aside from crab, what do you look forward to about Oregon?

KR: Excellent wine, exciting chamber music, and a part of the country that I haven’t seen much of before.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she was elected to the Music Critics Association of North America’s executive board and is a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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