:Lev 'Ljova' Zhurbin and his band pose on a Manhattan rooftop with the Empire State Building in the background. (Allan Tannenbaum)
Ljova and the Kontraband are essentially a crossover act, taking “an intentionally vague approach to musical traditions,” as they put it. With an instrumentation of strings, accordion and percussion, resembling “an Eastern European village band,” elements of klezmer, jazz and minimalism rub shoulders. In a program mixed with notated chamber music of the more conventional sort, it could be a pleasant change. An entire concert of it, heard on Sunday evening at Dumbarton Oaks, was another sign that the museum’s classical-oriented series is changing.
Arrangements of Jewish folk songs featured klezmer singer Inna Barmash handsomely, especially in “Ven Ikh Zol Hobn Fligelekh,” accompanied only by the viola of Ljova (born Lev Zhurbin), her husband. For the other pieces she used a microphone, which brought out the less pleasing qualities of her voice. This music had an infectious rhythmic appeal, the result of using straightforward meters and phrases of generally regular length, while in Ljova’s newer music, often mimicking the older style, he generally preferred mixed and irregular meters. This affected the ensemble unity of the performers, especially as violinist Sami Merdinian and clarinetist Kinan Azmeh were added to the mix.
Ljova’s “Bagel on the Malecon,” a piece familiar in a version for string quartet, had an especially pleasing groove, with the pizzicato walking bass played by Jordan Morton and tango-like metric shifts and chromatic flavor. The best pieces involved Azmeh, whose tone quality and improvisation skills were a step above, including on his composition “Wedding,” a cacophonous evocation of a Syrian village wedding. Azmeh was almost unable to perform. Born in Damascus, he has lived in the United States for years, but President Trump’s surprise executive order also denied re-entry to green-card holders. Stuck in Lebanon, where he was giving a concert last month, Azmeh was finally able to return home after a court ordered the lifting of the travel ban.