For the Love of Layla

03.01.09
Yo-Yo Ma, Silk Road Ensemble
The New York Times

EACH September for more years than he is willing to count, Alim Qasimov, one of Azerbaijan’s most revered singers, took the stage at the Theater of Opera and Ballet in Baku and kicked off the local concert season by performing the role of a crazed young lover in Uzeyir Hajibeyov’s opera “Layla and Majnun.” Based on a classic love story popular throughout the Middle East and Central and South Asia, the work is a jewel of Azerbaijani culture.

Hajibeyov’s birthday, Sept. 18, is celebrated as a national holiday in Azerbaijan, Music Day. “Layla and Majnun,” given its premiere in 1908 in Baku, was the first opera to emerge from the Middle East. It fitted the definition because it told a dramatic story using soloists, chorus and orchestra, and also because Hajibeyov, then 22, intended it that way; he had been inspired by seeing Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” in Tbilisi, Georgia.

But the opera featured one major deviation from the form. In place of recitatives and arias, Hajibeyov interspersed symphonic and choral sections with mugham, his native classical music. Mugham is a type of improvised singing or playing whose variations, or modes, are defined partly by the emotional states they evoke. Not notated, mughams have been passed on orally for hundreds of years. In Azerbaijani tradition there are seven main mughams and more than a hundred variations, each bearing a distinct name and spirit.

But Mr. Qasimov’s mood, after so many years of interpreting Hajibeyov’s Majnun, could not easily be expressed with a mugham; he was bored. The story of Layla and Majnun was very dear to him, he said in a recent interview, and he loved the opera. But something about the way it was being performed prevented him from expressing what he wanted to.

In 2006 members of the Silk Road Ensemble, an international music collective founded by Yo-Yo Ma, traveled to Baku for a cultural exchange. Mr. Qasimov had already worked with the group on projects like Franghiz Ali-Zadeh’s composition “Dervish.” So he approached Mr. Ma with something between an idea and a plea: Could he do something with Hajibeyov’s “Layla and Majnun”?

Mr. Ma and the multifaceted ensemble could indeed. Their production of “Layla and Majnun” will be presented in Providence, R.I., on Friday, then travel to Boston; North Bethesda, Md.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Minneapolis; and Toronto. It will come to Alice Tully Hall on June 6.

The tale of Layla and Majnun — cherished not only by Azerbaijanis, but also by Persians, Arabs, Afghans, Turks, Uzbeks, Indians and Pakistanis — has taken thousands of variations across cultures and art forms. It originated in the experience of Qays ibn al-Mulawwah, a young poet in the seventh century who fell in love with a woman named Layla and wrote poems about his desperate passion for her. But Layla’s father refused to let them marry and gave her hand to another man. Qays retreated to the wilderness, went mad and wasted away. He is remembered as Majnun, after an Arabic word meaning crazy.

The story became folklore and passed into Persian literature in the hands of various authors. The 16th-century poet Fuzuli’s Azerbaijani adaptation formed the libretto for Hajibeyov’s opera.

In the modern era the tale has been a motif in paintings, dances and songs and the inspiration for more than one Bollywood movie. And it gave Eric Clapton a name for his 1970 hit album with Derek and the Dominos, “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.” (When Mr. Clapton was infatuated with the wife of his close friend George Harrison, someone gave him a copy of “Layla and Majnun” in the rendering by the 12th-century poet Nizami, which furnished lyrics for the song “I Am Yours.”)

Mr. Ma and ensemble members did not know all of this when Mr. Qasimov approached them with his proposal. “What we knew,” said Jonathan Gandelsman, the group’s Russian-Israeli violinist, who eventually arranged the Hajibeyov adaptation, “was that we love Alim, and if he says we should do something, we’ll do it. We agreed to it blindly.”

But Mr. Gandelsman was a bit less enthusiastic when he sat down with a huge two-volume copy of the score from a library in Baku and a video recording of one of Mr. Qasimov’s old performances. It ran three and a half hours and used a huge cast. But the more complicated issue was that the sections composed for orchestra and chorus, in the style of a 19th-century Italian opera, seemed entirely separate from the mugham sections, long improvisations in which Mr. Qasimov interprets the plight of Majnun using one of the 24 different mughams specified by Hajibeyov.

Mr. Qasimov compares the improvisation of mugham — improvisation, that is, within complicated rules regarding the sequence of parts and the kinds of melodies and cadences that can be used — to digging. “With each performance we’re going deeper and deeper, trying to find the ideal version,” he said. “Sometimes it’s different but not necessarily better. It gets better and worse, better and worse, and then sometimes we find what we need.”

When Mr. Gandelsman and his fellow Silk Road violinist, Colin Jacobsen, set to work on “Layla and Majnun,” their prime goal was to knit together the Italianate and the mugham sections. They tried to translate what they heard in the mughams into their own musical language, writing out approximate scales and trying to determine a foundational tone for each mugham.

But they also relied heavily on the Azerbaijani musicians in the ensemble: Mr. Qasimov and his daughter Fargana Qasimova, who sings the part of Layla opposite him and is an accomplished mugham singer in her own right; Rauf Islamov, who plays the kamancheh, an Iranian spike fiddle; and Ali Asgar Mammadov, who plays the tar, an Azerbaijani lute.

Gradually the other ensemble members developed a sense for different mughams. “By now we know, for example, that when Alim says he’s going to sing in humayun,” Mr. Gandelsman said, “it’s a very specific thing, and it’s rare, and when it happens you should be prepared to cry.” Humayun, one of many mughams that depict specific degrees and types of sadness, is associated with mourning.

Mr. Gandelsman also had to rearrange a score written for a huge orchestra to be suitable for a small chamber ensemble, one with an unusual combination of instruments, from violin and cello to pipa, a Chinese lute played by Wu Man, and shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute played by Kojiro Umezaki. In addition to composing various bridge sections, Mr. Jacobsen wrote a new piece for the wedding of Layla to her father’s chosen suitor, based on a small motif in Hajibeyov’s opera. Mr. Jacobsen’s handiwork, Mr. Qasimov said, fits perfectly.

As for whether, after so many years of frustration, he is satisfied with the Silk Road Ensemble’s take on the work, Mr. Qasimov said he was, citing especially its “passion and a high level of sincerity.”

“In the original opera there are so many characters that it’s difficult to convey the main idea convincingly, the tragic love between Layla and Majnun,” he added. “Now we can focus on this idea.”

The Silk Road version of “Layla and Majnun” dispenses with full sets and elaborate costumes. Mr. Qasimov and his daughter perform their roles seated on a platform, surrounded by the other musicians. Behind the ensemble an English translation of sections of the libretto, rendered in calligraphy, is projected onto large screens along with original paintings by the designer Henrik Soderstrom.

Mr. Ma called the “Layla and Majnun” project “perhaps the finest example of group intelligence at work.” During the ensemble’s residency at Harvard, he said, scholars from several departments spoke to the group about different elements of cultural and musical history related to the story. This opportunity to allow a project to evolve slowly, with input from so many different sources, Mr. Ma added, is rare for an ensemble and precious.

The Silk Road Ensemble is not alone in reinterpreting “Layla and Majnun” as part of a larger mission. Last September the Tropenmuseum, a center for ethnography in Amsterdam, opened a permanent exhibition of stories from around the world, including “Layla and Majnun.” Visitors to the museum can stretch out on a four-poster bed and hear the story while illustrated scenes play on a sheet stretched above them. In October, Theater Peripherie, an experimental company in Frankfurt, performed a modern “Layla and Majnun” starring local Turkish, Iranian and Arab youth.

Mr. Ma said that the timing of such a variety of “Layla and Majnun” projects is a coincidence but also an indication of universality. “If something is so good, then it doesn’t belong to you or to me,” he said, “it belongs to all of us. It’s humanity that created it. So why can’t we have it in Minnesota?”

In Baku, meanwhile, the International Center of Mugham, built in the shape of a tar, opened in December and will host a mugham festival this month with performers from all over the world.