Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 26, 2023

Review: UMass Amherst, "William Kanengiser: Diaspora"

UMass, Amherst, MA
February 25, 2023
by Suzanne Wells
The frigid February night was perfect for an intimate evening in the Great Hall of the Old Chapel listening to classical acoustic guitar performed by world-renowned artist, William Kanengiser. Successfully combining storytelling and music in his Diaspora Project, William Kanengiser is preserving the wins and losses of immigrants around the world. 
Starting off with “Fantasia Sevillana” by Juaquin Turina, who, after studying impressionism in France, returned to Spain to incorporate it into Classical Spanish music. The disjointed first notes with hints of flamenco music soon morph into a melodic competition between a man and a bull. The increasing tempo of the music coincides with the drama of the story. When the final strings reverberate through the hall, one can almost hear a shout of “Olé!”
Moving to North Carolina, the Diaspora Project showcases Bryan Johanson’s “The Bootlegger’s Tale”. Divided into two parts, “Lament for a Broken Still” and “Ode to Whiskey,” the music conveys the stories handed down by generations of Irish immigrants known for their whiskey making during Prohibition. The “Lament…” is a series of scales played in increasing octaves, then repeated, representing the setting up and dismantling of stills. An “Ode to Whiskey” is a jig meant to extol the virtues of alcohol, but in this listener’s mind became a game of hide and seek between the bootleggers and the law in the forests of the Appalachian Mountains.
Heading east, the second commissioned work, “Lost Land” by Golfam Khayam, an Iranian composer, presents the story of returning home after a long period away only to find that nothing is as remembered. The melodic variations alternatively fill one with the excitement of reliving happy memories and the disappointment of finding those memories forever changed. A sixth string in a lower octave provides the foundation of time always moving forward.
After a brief stop in Cuba for some light-hearted fun with Léo Brouwer’s “Afro-Cuban Lullaby” and “Danza Carecteristica,” we land in Tibet, with Andrea Clearfield’s “Reflections on the Dranyen,” also commissioned for the Diaspora Project. In an attempt to preserve Nepal’s musical heritage, Clearfield composed an ode to a three-stringed instrument, the Dranyen.  The music starts off slowly, then picks up speed as if in celebration’ adding some percussion the melody takes on the frenzy of a rock concert before calming to more reflective tones, and ultimately ending with a fading heartbeat. 
Kanengiser closed the program with “3 African Sketches” by Duśan Bogdanović and the “Brookland Boogie” by Brian Head sending the audience off into a dark snowy night with toe-tapping hope.