John Hadfield, Bridget Kibbey and Mahsa Vahdat perform Sunday at Hannaford Hall in Portland. Photo by Katie Day

A Portland audience took a trip across continents and back in time on Sunday afternoon.

In a collaborative production by the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center and Portland Ovations, part of the latter’s “Seeking Resonance” series, harpist Bridget Kibbey led a talented trio in a historical journey through music
created during, or influenced by, the Islamic Golden Era, a period of about six centuries beginning more than a thousand years ago.

Though rooted in ancient forms, the partly improvised music played at the University of Southern Maine’s Hannaford Hall on Sunday also sounded remarkably contemporary, perhaps due to a trend toward integrating diverse musical genres into both serious and popular music that has emerged in recent times. Still, there were striking moments.

Giving the proceedings a bit of an educational feel, Kibbey described her own research leading up to creating a musical program that would take the audience “From Persia To Iberia.” But once she applied her fingers to her large
concert harp, it was clear that she was a formidable musician, fluent in the “modes, colors, and drones” within music that carries the weight of history.

The concert began with a section titled “Iberia.” After brief comments, Kibbey soloed on adaptations of short works for guitar and piano by the Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz. Hints of Romanticism revealed how the composer brought the influence of Middle Eastern musical traditions, that had arrived in Spain centuries earlier via North Africa, into the 20th century.

To take a chronological leap backward, Kibbey then called percussionist John Hadfield to the stage for pieces that brought out various strains of the music of the “African Maghreb.” Hadfield’s frame drum and kalimba (thumb piano)
gave rhythmic coherence to Kibbey’s mesmerizing excursions into musical realms associated with the narrative traditions of the “Bards and Griots” of the period. A surge of rhythmic and melodic intensity near the end of this section was a highlight for those wanting to experience the fierce energy sometimes revealed within music often better known for its plaintive refrains.


Finally, the “Persia” section of the program introduced the audience to the hauntingly beautiful sounds of Mahsa Vahdat, an Iranian vocalist whose melodies, based in ancient poetry, created a sense of timelessness essential to the music.

With Hadfield and Kibbey improvising support, Vahdat sang of long-ago themes while acknowledging, through inspiring songs of hope and commentary between them, that a “revolution” in her homeland was still very much underway.

Sunday’s concert was a fascinating, if brief, 80 minutes of music, at times both meditative and toe-tapping, that filled the comfortable concert hall on the USM’s Portland campus with spirit.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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