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Review: Pacific Serenades welcomes an oud into the fold

February 9, 2009 |  4:30 pm

Munir Münir N. Beken is a composer, and his instrument is the Middle Eastern oud, a member of the wide-ranging Eurasian lute family. And if you are wondering what this decidedly non-Western instrument was doing at a Pacific Serenades concert Sunday afternoon, the answer is that Beken was trying to merge his oud with the fairly uncommon classical combination of flute and string trio.

Beken, who teaches in the UCLA ethnomusicology department, seems to have a fondness for whimsical titles; among the pieces listed in his bio are “I Am a Corpse” and “A Turk in Seattle.” Sunday’s piece, Pacific Serenades’ 91st commissioned world premiere, was called “Memories of a Shoehorn” -- which sounds flip but actually has a serious context. Beken is referring to his imaginings of musical gatherings in his childhood that his father attended in the Turkish city of Istanbul at homes where you had to remove your shoes. Hence, he always carried a shoehorn. (UPDATE: An earlier version of this post misidentified Istanbul as the Turkish capital.)

From the evidence of “Memories of a Shoehorn” -- in two movements of nine minutes each -- Beken seems to guess that those gatherings were informal, eclectic, rambling collages of this and that from East and West. A two-note motif picked up by the oud gets a rhythm going underneath the ensemble at the outset, but everything stops suddenly for a solo cello cadenza. A lopsided dance that you would swear was rooted in Stravinsky abruptly gives way to slurred strains of nostalgia. After the last movement reaches a climax following a fugue, the piece sort of peters out, as if the amateur musicians have run out of ideas and are gradually packing up to go home.

From a seat near the rear of Pasadena’s Neighborhood Church, Beken’s oud -- think of an alto lute, and that approximates what it sounds like -- was sometimes difficult to hear through the ensemble.

Fortunately, he returned after the break with an uninterrupted solo medley of one improvisation and two compositions. Hearing him not long after a dazzling display by the Palestinian oud virtuoso Simon Shaheen at the Skirball Center in January made for a fascinating contrast; Beken’s admittedly different Turkish oud sounded lighter and less intense.

Before being teamed with Beken, flutist Mark Carlson, violinist Kathleen Lenski, violist Roland Kato and cellist David Speltz put together an agreeable, if not always tidy, performance of Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D, K. 285. Afterward, the ensemble minus Carlson tackled Beethoven’s String Trio, Opus 9, No. 3 with a not inappropriate rough-and-ready spirit.

Pacific Serenades, UCLA Faculty Center, 405 N. Hilgard Ave., Westwood. 8 p.m. Tuesday. $32. (213) 534-3434.

-- Richard S. Ginell

Photo: Münir N. Beken. Credit: Lee Varis