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Originally published Thursday, March 1, 2012 at 10:43 AM

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Corrected version

Seattle Chamber Players tour Mediterranean in 'Icebreaker' festival

Seattle Chamber Players' two-day festival, "Icebreaker VI: New Music from the Mediterranean," explores both folkloric and abstract musical offerings from Southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Of the 12 living composers on the program, at least half a dozen will be attending.

Seattle Times arts writer

Concert preview

Seattle Chamber Players: 'Icebreaker VI: New Music from the Mediterranean'

8 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Feb. 26, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $15-$25 (206-215-4747 or www.seattlechamberplayers.org).
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In what might be the most benign world conquest ever, the Seattle Chamber Players (SCP) have targeted the Mediterranean — all of it — as the focus of their next "Icebreaker," the latest in SCP's series of festivals exploring new music from different parts of the globe.

They'll be taking possession of Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Greece, Croatia, Slovenia, Israel, Albania, Morocco, Algeria and Turkey. And they'll stake claim to brand new ground broken by Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz.

Earlier this month, three of SCP's four core players — clarinetist Laura DeLuca, violinist Mikhail Shmidt and flutist Paul Taub — sat down in a practice room in the bowels of Benaroya Hall to discuss "Icebreaker VI: New Music from the Mediterranean."

In musical terms the offerings from North Africa and the Middle East will likely be the more seductive fare.

It's tonal music, Taub explains, even if it's not the tonality of the West's major/minor scales. "Because we have a familiarity listening both to pop music that's influenced by music from other countries and to world music," he notes, "it makes a kind of accessibility that's the very opposite from what we think of as the European avant-garde sound."

Shmidt, chiming in, observes that Western European composers often seem reluctant to address their folk tradition. "People from Northern Africa," he says, "feel much more comfortable embracing their ethnic-musical background."

The lineup, Taub concludes, should strike a satisfying balance between folkloric pieces and work that's more "abstract." Of the 12 living composers on the program, at least half a dozen will be attending.

"And we're going to channel Luciano Berio," DeLuca jokes.

She's referring to Berio's ravishing "Folk Songs," the one well-known classic on the program. Although Berio (1925-2003) was a renowned musical boundary-breaker, the 11 tunes in this suite — set against spare, otherworldly instrumental backdrops — are unabashedly ear-enchanting.

SCP was drawn to the piece almost by chance when one of their collaborators, soprano Agata Zubel, used her recording of it to do a sound check in a space where she and SCP were about to perform.

"We just listened to about five minutes of it," DeLuca recalls, "and we said, 'We have to do this piece with her. It's a knockout.' "

Shmidt was so enthused that he was undeterred by its lack of a violin part. He'll be making his public debut on viola, just so he can take part in it. Zubel will be guest soloist.

SCP has learned to expect the unexpected in programming a festival consisting almost entirely of new works. The world premiere of Fairouz's "Incantation and Dabnek" is one example. Twenty-six-year-old Fairouz, of Egyptian-Lebanese parentage, is a rising star of the classical music world. An all-Fairouz recital was presented at Carnegie Hall last fall, and a recent CD of his chamber works, "Critical Models," suggests (especially in its writing for alto saxophone) that he'll come up with something well-suited to DeLuca's exquisite clarinet talents.

The original commission was for Fairouz to create a chamber adaptation of his concerto for clarinet and orchestra ("very Arabic/klezmeric in style," DeLuca says). In discussing the piece with him, DeLuca suggested it needed a calmer moment in it somewhere. Fairouz was game to make changes, and DeLuca assumed she'd be getting a chamber setting of the fast parts, with a slow interlude inserted into it.

"The next thing you know," she laughs, "he sends me the piece, and it's completely different than what we had talked about."

It's now in two full movements: a lyrical melodic duet for clarinet and viola, followed by a brisk romp for clarinet and string quartet ("fast melodies, punchy accompaniment").

Israeli composer Yitzhak Yedid is another wild card in the mix. He'll play the piano part in his "Passions and Prayers," and when you hear the piece, you'll know why. One keyboard solo in it bounces so wildly over a tight rhythmic framework that it can't possibly have been notated.

Shmidt notes that "Icebreaker VI," while it's a "composer-driven" festival, is also a celebration of local talent, with guests including conductor Julia Tai, percussionist Matthew Kocmieroski, pianist Cristina Valdes and several Seattle Symphony players.

"We're really lucky," Shmidt says, "to have the most incredible musicians in town."

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published Feb. 19, 2012, was corrected March 1, 2012. A previous version of this story listed the wrong age for Mohammed Fairouz.

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