It is highly unusual for a 27-year-old classical musician to have racked up any significant, life-defining achievements, but Claude Chalhoub has managed to do so within two widely disparate and demanding genres. The Lebanese-born violinist not only enjoys a flourishing career as a concert headliner, but has released a crossover album on a major label. The eponymous CD (Teldec) features Chalhoub’s spacious Arabic-influenced original compositions, plus creative reworkings of Middle Eastern and Western classics, including a meditation inspired by one of the 19th century French impressionist composer Erik Satie’s ever-popular “Gnoissiennes.” The overall tone is East-meets-West-then-they-both-chill-out and the dreaded f-word (fusion) mercifully is nowhere within earshot.
Classical players have often been drawn to world music, but as they are not trained in improvisation, their attempts generally display more enthusiasm than authenticity. The Yehudi Mehuhin-Ravi Shankar sessions of the ’60s and ’70s paired the English violinist and master sitarist in a series of inspired duets. Flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal’s lovely, delicate flute-and-harp renderings of Japanese folk melodies are still in print and justifiably so. On “In The Fiddler’s House,” Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman gamely sat in with stars of the New York klezmer scene, and the intrepid cellist Yo-Yo Ma has journeyed from the Appalachians all the way to the Silk Road.
However, Chalhoub is heard not only on the violin, but he also plays viola, harmonium, bass and piano, accompanied by tabla, flute and Spanish guitar. On “Baddour,” a touching tribute to his late sister, he is joined by the elegiac vocals of Farroukh Fateh Ali Khan, who is the brother of the late Pakistani qawwal Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and father of Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. The project was produced by Michael Brook, a fearless Canadian musical polyglot who had previously worked with British art-rocker Brian Eno, Armenian duduk (a type of woodwind) virtuoso Djivan Gasparayan, Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour an perhaps most famously, with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Claude Chalhoub’s dramatic background renders his story even more unlikely, almost a fantasy-come-true. He was born into a musical family in 1974 in Beirut, Lebanon. His earliest musical inspirations came from Arabic classical and folk styles that he heard at home or on the streets during his formative years. He was attracted to the violin as a small child after hearing an older brother play. He had embarked upon an informal syllabus by the age of eight but eventually enrolled in a local conservatory, sharpening his technique and immersing himself in Western classical traditions.