Kinan Azmeh’s Clarinet Concerto at Royal Festival Hall


After the vast white modernness of Elb Philharmonie earlier this week, the usually faded 50s glamour Royal Festival Hall had a comparatively shabby feel to it. The crowd was entirely different too. A much younger group, unshaven, long-haired, unkempt. Vintage casual, lace-up boots and the occasional ripped jeans. Instead of Hamburg’s gentle murmur, there was jostling, voices battling to be heard at the bar, and a race for the toilets before the final audience bell signalled the auditorium doors were about to close. I felt at ease here.

A young audience too. Younger than me, for sure. An entirely different energy. And thanks to going to the London Philharmonic Orchestra concert with a plus one, an unusually social experience too.

The draw for me was Syrian clarinettist Kinan Azmeh’s Clarinet Concerto, inspired and reflective of his thoughts and feelings after President Trump issued his travel ban stopping people from seven majority-Muslim countries in 2017. The work Azmeh wrote commissioned by Classical Movements for Seattle Symphony Orchestra sought to celebrate freedom – a musical exploration in response to the Syrian clarinettist’s experience of being unable to return home following the ban.   

There was an air of anticipation. Having a specific hook to go to a concert isn’t by any means a requirement, but I’m increasingly coming around to thinking that it’s a useful part of the process – something that heightens the experience by increasing motivation.

Kinan Azmeh with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of his own clarinet concerto on Thursday 18 January 2023

Azmeh delivered in spades. First as a performer. His posture is quite something – a confident stance from toe to clarinet bell with sufficient flexibility as to make the moves in response to the sounds he creates balletic. From time to time the clarinet moves independently from the subtle head turns. The isolated movement of the instrument is a joy to behold. He occupies the space between conductor and leader with a nervous energy, compulsively pulling down a snugly fitting waistcoat, patting down his trouser pockets and shifting weight from one heel to another.

The solo line immediately has a human quality to it. Meandering, searching. It tugs at the heartstrings. It follows a three-movement structure but is played as one complete work. A slow burn builds ultimately to a foot-tapping third movement, with a return to a more introspective feel eventually dying away. Evocative sounds paint a vivid picture within seconds of conductor Enrique Mazzola raising his baton. I get to the end of the work when I feel as though I’m applauding the soloist as though I know him personally and have done for years.  It’s as though we’ve all joined him on a joyous and uplifting excursion in 22 minutes.  

London Philharmonic Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall

Grabbing our interval drinks me and my plus one comment on how much we enjoyed not just the work but the Kinan Azmeh’s showmanship. I ponder what it is about the work that went before it in the programme – Brett Dean’s 11-minute concert opener Amphitheatre (2000). My plus one points to the range of musical ideas, the fact that we don’t linger for too long on each idea, AND the presence of an extensive percussion section including tuned percussion which gives proceedings a far-away-land feel.

I appreciate the observations, in particular, the notion about an idea or fragment not only having to sound original and appealing to someone listening to it for the first time but also knowing when is just enough time spent before moving on to the next idea. Quite some feat. So too programming two contemporary works alongside one another, holding my attention throughout and making me want to talk about both in the interval.