Rebuilding music in Iran; Masters turn to new generation

The Boston Globe

By Andrew Gilbert

The Islamic revolution that engulfed Iran in 1979 didn’t just sweep away the old political order. Under Ayatollah Khomeini’s strict interpretation of Shiite Islam, just about every form of music was banned, including the nation’s supremely sophisticated classical tradition with roots stretching back to Persia’s pre-Islamic Sassanian Dynasty.

Kayhan Kalhor, the unsurpassed master of the kamancheh, an ancient four-string spiked violin, has spent much of his life building bridges between Iran and the West. But he launched the Masters of Persian Music partly as a way to repair the post-revolution generational divide among Iranian musicians. A founding member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, he lived in Europe and the United States for about two decades before returning to Iran in 2003.

“All of the old masters left Iran around the revolution in search of better situations and more concerts,’’ Kalhor, 47, says from his home in Tehran. “There are thousands of brilliant young technicians in Iran now, but there’s this gap between two generations, and there’s a lot that’s missing in the music. This happened in every art form. There was this brilliant film generation before the revolution, but after nothing happened until a few years ago.’’

While Kalhor is too young to be considered a senior master, he cofounded the group with Hossein Alizadeh, 58, a composer widely hailed as his generation’s most vivid and eloquent instrumentalist. A virtuoso of the Persian plucked lute, or tar, Alizadeh is steeped in the body of traditional melodies known as the Radif, a vocabulary intimately intertwined with the rhythms of classical Persian poetry. He and Kalhor perform with the Masters of Persian Music on Thursday in a World Music/Crash Arts concert at Sanders Theatre.

“Classical musicians are ranked in a well respected hierarchy based on whether they have studied with a certain number of masters and learned the goushehs of the dastgah,’’ says Abbas Milani, director of Stanford University’s Iranian Studies Program, referring to the modes and melodies that make up the Radif. “There’s a consensus that Alizadeh is someone who has delved deeply but also innovatively, particularly by bringing elements of folkloric music into the classical structures. His most famous songs use all the ornamentation and all the structures of classical music, but infuse it with vivacity and energy of folkloric and ethnic music.’’

Earlier versions of the Masters featured vocal legend Mohammad Reza Shajarian, one of a handful of revered pre-revolutionary masters who, like Alizadeh, stayed in Iran. The ensemble’s latest incarnation showcases some of the tradition’s most promising younger players, including vocalist Hamid Reza Nourbakhsh, a Shajarian disciple who made his Boston debut last year. The group also features Alizadeh’s son, Nima Alizadeh on robab (lute), Rouzbeh Rahimi on santur (hammered dulcimer), Alireza Hosseini on tombak (drum), and Siamak Jahangiry on ney (reed flute).

Unusually, the Masters don’t only concentrate on works by beloved medieval Persian poets such as Hafez, Ferdowsi, Saadi, and Rumi. The group also interprets contemporary verse, particularly by noted poet Mohammad-Reza Shafii-Kadkani, a visiting scholar at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies.

“Historically there’s a synergy and mutual interdependence between Persian poetry and music,’’ Milani says. “There are books written about the musicality of Hafez. Alizadeh and Kalhor are part of the effort to utilize modern Persian poetry in classical music, a difficult marriage because it doesn’t have the metric rules of classical poetry. Musicians are just beginning to find how the two can cohere.’’

Under the Shah’s regime, the government patronized the classical arts. These days, classical musicians often find themselves more welcome on foreign stages. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said that musical education has no place in an Islamic university according to Milani. With about 70 percent of Iran’s population born after the revolution, the prospects for young classical musicians are particularly bleak.

“It’s a very difficult road a student has to take, given the social circumstances, and no support from the government,’’ says Nourbakhsh, who runs Iran’s House of Music, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for musicians.

Some Western artists are determined to open up new channels for Iranian musicians. Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov has sought opportunities to work with Kalhor since they both contributed to Kronos Quartet’s 2000 Nonesuch album “Caravan.’’ Golijov finally got the chance when he featured Kalhor’s haunting kamancheh on his score for Francis Ford Coppola’s 2007 film “Youth Without Youth.’’ When Golijov first described Kalhor’s sound, Coppola was unimpressed.

“But when he heard it he wanted to use it all over the place,’’ Golijov says. “Kayhan is the master of that instrument. He’s taken the kamancheh to places it has never traveled before, musically, emotionally, and culturally. The civilization that he represents is very powerful and he’s at the top.’’