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Syrian clarinetist and visual artist collaborate on La Jolla stage to explore the idea of ‘home’

Silkroad Ensemble clarinetist Kinan Azmeh performs while artist Kevork Mourad (left) creates live art on a screen behind him.
(Piotr Poloczanski)

Kinan Azmeh and Kevork Mourad will perform April 3 at La Jolla Music Society’s Baker-Baum Concert Hall with five Silkroad Ensemble members.

Syrian clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh vividly remembers watching the 2011 uprising in his homeland on TV from New York. The violent government response left many dead and began a huge exodus of refugees.

“I can’t describe the magnitude of that,” said Azmeh, who became an American citizen last year. “I wasn’t able to write for a year. I continued to play — that’s how I pay my rent. But it severely affected my creative process.”

Azmeh broke his unwanted hiatus by composing a single song, “A Sad Morning, Every Morning,” which he shared with visual artist Kevork Mourad, his longtime friend.

Mourad, an Armenian-Syrian American, animated the song, which can be found on YouTube. “A Sad Morning” was the cornerstone of what became “Home Within,” a unique collaboration of music and visual art created live onstage.

The La Jolla Music Society is bringing “Home Within” — one of two Silkroad Ensemble tours this season — to the Baker-Baum Concert Hall at La Jolla’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center on Sunday, April 3.

In an unusual format, Azmeh and five other Silkroad musicians will perform as Mourad works at an easel, with his drawings projected on the screen behind them.

“Syria inspired ’Home Within,’ but this project encourages investigating the larger concept of ‘home,’” Azmeh said. “Is home the place you grew up and have memories of? Or is it a place you’d like to contribute to?

“I’ve always said Syria belongs to all of humanity. The events in Ukraine, visually there are similarities. Tragedies do repeat.”

Silkroad Ensemble member Kinan Azmeh performs on clarinet.
(Piotr Poloczanski)

‘Deep emotions’

The Silkroad musicians accompanying Azmeh and Mourad are bassist Shawn Conley, cellist Karen Ouzounian, oud player Issam Rafea, percussionist Shane Shanahan and violinist Layale Chaker. Chaker and Azmeh are married and live in Brooklyn, N.Y. They take their 1-year-old son with them on tour.

Azmeh said it took about a year for him and Mourad to build the piece from the 3½-minute “Sad Morning.” Sections of the piece are improvised.

“I’m a collaborator,” said Azmeh, who on March 15 was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as a member of the National Council on the Arts. “Part of it is driven by the clarinet, which is a single-line instrument. If I want to harmonize, I need another player.

“Music is unique in that we can all talk and listen to each other at the same time. I did write the music for this but gave time for the musicians to bring their own stories. Not just the musicians — Kevork will say something. I like to play with the fine line between composer and improviser.”

Azmeh, who performed in San Diego in 2019 with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, acknowledged that the tragic situation from which “Home Within” springs “puts me back in deep emotions every time we play it. We hope it will open a window to investigate more. Our job to create art, but also to document history.”

“I hope someone in the audience is from Ukraine,” he added. “The concert ends on an optimistic note. I believe we can rebuild something. Art can heal the human soul.”

What is Silkroad?

Azmeh and Mourad are longtime members of the Silkroad Ensemble, the performing part of Silkroad, which was founded in 1998 by acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He saw the history of the ancient Silk Road trade route linking Asia and Europe as a model for exchanging ideas and innovations.

Silkroad has four music-oriented components: creation of new music, social impact initiatives, educational partnerships and the Silkroad Ensemble, a diverse collective that performs worldwide.

In 2017, the ensemble won a world music Grammy Award for the album “Sing Me Home,” which features Azmeh as a clarinetist and composer.

“Silkroad is a collective of communicators who think larger than themselves,” Azmeh said. “Whether they play, dance or do spoken word, they are all thinkers trying to make sense of the world.”

Silkroad Ensemble: ‘Home Within’

When: 7 p.m. Sunday, April 3

Where: Baker-Baum Concert Hall, Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla

Cost: $36-$70

Information: (858) 459-3728, ljms.org