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Kayhan Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider at UCLA's Royce Hall

Kayhan Kalhor & Brooklyn Rider
Los Angeles Times

Laying bare the links and contrasts between the traditional music of Persia and the modernist leanings of the Euro-American chamber ensemble, the Iranian kamancheh (spike fiddle) master Kayhan Kalhor was joined Saturday night at UCLA's Royce Hall by contemporary classical string quartet Brooklyn Rider.

Along with his border-crossing collaborations with the Kronos Quartet, Kalhor, of Kurdish descent, has earned acclaim for his alliances with Persian and Indian musicians in the Ghazal ensemble. He met the members of Brooklyn Rider when both became involved in Yo-Yo Ma's collaborative and charitable Silk Road Project in 2000. The partnership between Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider resulted in "Silent City," a 2008 album released on Harmonia Mundi's World Village label, and one that illustrated their mutual affinity for a gently experimental blending of seemingly disparate musical traditions.

The UCLA performance opened with a Persian traditional song called "Ascending Bird," arranged by Brooklyn Rider's Colin Jacobsen with noted santur musician Siamak Aghaei. Its complex layers of overlapping strings and coiling, vocal-like kamancheh -- with a distant pitter-patter of hand percussion -- conjured a vivid flight out of, perhaps, nocturnal quietude toward a shimmering, golden sun. Kalhor's "Parvaz" offered super-refined flickering tones enmeshed with the string ensemble's sinuous yet more strident strokes, producing a thrillingly opaque field of string sound.

Brooklyn Rider's core quartet presented a lusciously harmonized set of Armenian folk songs by Vartabed Komitas, performing several short, sweet works ranging in mood from the plaintive and coy to the mystical. The fruity, almost opulent sound of these songs felt simultaneously antiquated and modern, and suggested melodic and harmonic links between the regional traditions of Armenia, Iran and Turkey, along with the graceful impressionism of Western European composers such as Ravel and Debussy.

Kayhan and the ensemble also performed Jacobsen's "Beloved, Do Not Let Me Be Discouraged" and "Brooklesca," the former based on Fuzuli's 16th-century Turkic poem about ill-fated lovers and containing melodic references to the songs of 14th-century Italian troubadours. These were serviceable but rather repetitive and comparatively lightweight pieces. Nevertheless, they were further enlightened by fusions of far-flung traditions.

Commemorating Halabja, a Kurdish village in Iraq destroyed in the Iran-Iraq war by Iraqi forces, the evening's centerpiece was Kalhor's "Silent City," a mysterious, slowly evolving piece shrouded in stillness and cleverly colored by Kalhor and the string players' technique of simulating echo/reverb effects. A protracted, semi-improvised opening lament created a hovering, ruminatory air that gained not only a tension, but also a growing anticipation, eventually breaking out in a jubilant twine of tones exploding in all directions. It suggested the dawn of a new, better life.