Arts concert review

Evoking the Arab Spring through music

MITWE, MIT Video Productions, and Jamsheid Sharifi ’83 partner for PBS documentary

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MIT Wind Ensemble Director Dr. Fredrick Harris and flutist Emily L. Jackson ’12 congratulate composer Jamsheid Sharifi ’83 after a performance of Awakening.
Sina Mohammadi

The MIT Wind Ensemble (MITWE) scored a coup last Friday when PBS aired the television world premiere of MIT-produced documentary Awakening: Evoking the Arab Spring Through Music. The documentary featured MITWE’s performance of Awakening, composed by MIT alumnus Jamsheid Sharifi ’83. The piece is intended to encourage listeners to contemplate the movement that swept Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and other Arab countries. MITWE director Dr. Frederick Harris commissioned the piece from Sharifi, a renowned New York-based composer, who felt personally connected to the Arab Spring because of his Middle Eastern heritage.

“Something in the Middle East has undeniably changed. And I tried to honor that shift in this piece,” said Sharifi, who utilized Arabic maqam, a melody unique to traditional Arabic music.

“The first movement gives us a sense of place … and continues in a somewhat programmatic fashion, touching on the tragic event that ignited the protests, and continuing into the propagation of the revolutions,” said Sharifi. “The second movement is a respite, a change to contemplate what has happened. And the third hopes to energize and inspire the work that is to come.”

The 30-minute documentary was the first work MIT Video Productions produced specifically for broadcast television. It includes not only interviews and the story behind Awakening, but also the performance of the piece itself, first performed by MITWE in March 2012.

“We welcomed the opportunity to collaborate with Fred, Jamsheid, and the remarkable MITWE student musicians, and for the additional opportunity to apply the collective talents of MIT Video Productions in crafting a performance documentary for WGBH,” said Larry Gallagher, producer of the documentary and director of MIT Video Productions. “It captures in musical form the great optimism and the great uncertainty unleashed by the Arab Spring,” reflected MIT Associate Provost and Professor of History, Philip S. Khoury.

The piece was a career highlight for Sharifi, who worked on the composition as an artist in residence at MIT in March of 2012. “Working with Fred Harris and the MIT Wind Ensemble on Awakening was one of the most rewarding artistic experiences of my life,” said Sharifi. “Fred and the musicians in the group were committed, passionate, and unfailingly musical in bringing the piece to life.”

Sharifi graduated from MIT with a degree in 21E (Humanities and Engineering), and completed his graduate studies at Berklee College of Music, earning a degree in Jazz Composition and Arranging.

Emmy Award-winning director Bob Comiskey helped create the documentary; he called the composition “beautiful,” “at times delicate, meditative, and then immensely powerful,” seasoned by “a Middle Eastern flavor.”

Since 2001, MITWE has commissioned 35 original works by MIT faculty and internationally renowned composers. Awakening marks the first time PBS has broadcast an MIT music documentary. A fixture at MIT and the greater Boston’s arts community, the ensemble performs four concerts on campus annually.