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Kayhan Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider sublime at Alverno

Kayhan Kalhor, Kayhan Kalhor & Brooklyn Rider , Brooklyn Rider
ThirdCoast Digest

By Jennifer Reinke

At a collaborative concert at Alverno Presents on Saturday, Iranian kamancheh (spike-fiddle) virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor and adventurous American string quartet Brooklyn Rider wove a rich tapestry of textures and architectures that bridged the traditions of Eastern and Western music.

The program was a celebration of decade-long friendship between the quartet’s four young musicians – violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen – and Kalhor, who first worked together as part of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble in 2000. Kalhor’s virtuosity is well-known throughout the Persian world, and his performance drew many from Milwaukee’s Iranian community.

Zohreh Emami, Alverno College professor of economics, said she cried all the way through the performance. “It was a huge emotional experience for us to see a multicultural community coming together and playing the heart of Persian music. The home where I left and the home where I’m at came together.”

The kamancheh has four strings and is about as long as a viola, but is played like a cello. Pairing the two led to some beautiful passages in the musicians’ collaborative album Silent City, where kamancheh and cello swelled with shared melodic lines and Kalhor and cellist Eric Jacobsen masterfully synchronized expressive bow strokes.

Cello’s not all the kamacheh goes with, though, and Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider proved it. This ancient ancestor to the European violin family exudes sonorities distilled into the instruments of a string quartet, with a range similar to the violin and a lower register that exhibits the mellow opacity of the viola and cello. The program’s first piece, Beloved, do not let me be discouraged by Colin Jacobson, allowed us to hear the breathy, ethereal kamancheh and viola in consort.

But this was only a warm-up for what followed – Seven Steps, Brooklyn Rider’s first collaborative composition. The musicians’ technical skill and intent communication was enough to make any string player’s jaw drop (mine did). The piece came with all the bells and whistles – ricochet, glissando, harmonics, pizzicato presto. The effect was awe-inspiring, with colorful and complex texture.

Kalhor returned to the stage for Atashgah, Colin Jacobson’s musical reflection on the ancient Zoroastrian fire temples he visited near the Iranian city of Esfahan. The piece opened with quiet but resonant guitar-style strumming. Singable, melodic sequences and romantic swells developed, giving way to danceable rhythms and ecstatic vocalizations from the kamancheh. Just as it had started, the piece quietly ended. It mirrored our approach to an ancient artifact like the kamancheh: with reverence and wonder, our imaginations take flight. We hear the echoes of history arise out of silence.

The second half of the program opened with American composer Philip Glass’ Suite for String Quartet from “Bent.” More consonant and less improvisational than the other works, Glass’ repeated rhythmic patterns with subtle harmonic changes nonetheless achieved a similar meditative state.

Kalhor’s acclaimed Silent City rounded out the program. Bearing universal witness to devastated places, the work’s impetus was the destruction of Halabjah in Kurdistan, Iraq. A redemptive composition, its musical narrative is told in reverse: out of desolation, life slowly returns.

We barely hear a single whispering kamancheh string, intoning like a parched throat, painfully alone. Eventually, long, hollow tones sigh from the other instruments. There is no rhythm, no echo here – only a flat, destitute soundscape. Slow vibrato makes the kamancheh pant; trills make her cry. Finally, individual voices exchange melodic motifs. Pizzicato announces rhythm and paints texture. After a unifying climax, a joyful dance borrowed from the Kurdish folk tradition emerges and signals a return to life.

The ensemble’s encore performance of Ascending Bird, an arrangement by Colin Jacobsen and Siamak Aghaei of a Persian traditional song, was equally energetic and captivating.

Brooklyn Rider and Kalhor initiate us into a musical world without boundaries. Set alight by the richness of Eastern and Western traditions and by the endless possibilities of collaboration, they create space for the sublime.