- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 8, 2005

Masters of Persian Music, an all-star ensemble of four of Iran’s most celebrated musicians, has come and gone.

Judging from Saturday’s enthusiastic reception at the Kennedy Center, however, the ensemble is certain to return — especially if the Washington Performing Arts Society has anything to do with it.

WPAS, which hosted the performance, took an educated guess in booking the group. It paid off with a near sell-out crowd at the Kennedy Center’s 2,400-seat Concert Hall.

The program not only attracted Iranian-born, Farsi-speaking fans of that country’s classical music tradition, but others who were less familiar with the sound. By contrast, the varied musical forms of China and the Asian subcontinent have become recognizable because of wider exposure.

Credit the recent embrace of Persian music to a rising global consciousness; thanks in part to the Silk Road Project. The project, created under the guidance of cellist Yo-Yo Ma in 1998, explores the rich cross-cultural exchange between the lands of the former Silk Road, the historic trade route (stretching from Japan to ancient Rome) that connected the people and traditions of Asia with those of Europe.

Keyhan Kalhor, a renowned kamancheh (spike fiddle) player with the all-star Masters quartet, toured two years ago with musicians organized by Mr. Ma under the name Silk Road Ensemble. The three musicians joining Mr. Kalhor on the Persian-rug platform in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall were vocalist Mohammad Reza Chajarian, Hossein Alizadeh on the tar (a long-necked lute) and Homayoun Shajarian, a vocalist and tombak (goblet drum) player. All are from Tehran.

“Globalization is good as long as it doesn’t damage the cultures themselves,” Mr. Kalhor said before the concert. “With the kind of world we live in today, we have this great responsibility to learn about each other. But if we don’t respect the cultures, we might just make a big mess out of everything — like we are doing in politics.”

Mr. Kalhor, 42, has studied Western classical music in Rome and Ottawa. He also has lived in New York City and claims John Adams as his favorite American composer. Drawn at a very young age to the kamancheh “because it is very lyrical, poetic and deep,” he began training with a master player at age 7.

Classical Persian music comes from a very rich, complicated tradition, Mr. Kalhor said, emphasizing that it influenced the music of both China and India in many ways. “The invention of the sitar and tabla have been credited to an Iranian musician and poet, and a lot of musical terms are Persian,” he noted. Persian music, thoroughly entwined with poetry, does not include the drone often heard in Indian music. To untutored ears, the vibrant melodies sound mournful and ethereal at the same time while lacking in harmony as Westerners perceive it.

Mr. Shajarian, considered something of a national treasure at home, has a strong, rich voice that occasionally echoes the tones of the instruments. Yet the language in the verses Mr. Shajarian sings are not always familiar to contemporary listeners. “It’s the equivalent of medieval or Middle English,” said one Farsi-speaking audience member.

It should come as no surprise that classical Persian music has been influenced by the political turmoil in Iran’s history. This was especially evident during the early 20th century and, Mr. Kalhor conceded, during the Islamic revolution of the 1970s. According to the program notes, Persian classical music “attracted a mass audience of unprecedented size, with many young people in particular learning the music” during the Iran-Iraq war in the mid-1980s.

Now those young people have grown up — as evidenced by the large and enthusiastic audience at the Masters’ KenCen concert.

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