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Review: Ovation ensures Iranian duo will not stand alone

Kayhan Kalhor
Portland Press Herald

Music of the shah kaman and bass santour has the crowd on its feet.

By Christopher Hyde

It is not often that 1 1/2 hours of continuous music pass in an instant, but it seemed that way at Hannaford Hall Saturday night, when Kayhan Kalhor on shah kaman and Ali Bahrami Fard on bass santour collaborated in a live performance of “I Will Not Stand Alone,” presented by Portland Ovations.

At the end, the large audience, some in traditional Iranian garb, awakened as if from a trance to give the musicians a thunderous standing ovation. “I Will Not Stand Alone” is a linked series of Kalhor’s compositions that commemorate his experiences during the failed Green Movement civil uprising in Tehran. They range in mood from sadness to aspiration and eventual hope and tranquility, but all are brilliantly realized.

Kalhor’s shah kaman (“king of bows”) is a custom-built version of the ancient Persian instrument the kamancheh, perhaps the ancestor of the modern violin. With extra strings and a wider range of pitch than the original, it can sing like a cello, a violin, a guitar or the human voice, but has a timbre all its own, due to the gourd-shaped soundbox.

The santour is a giant hammer dulcimer. It sounds like a cross between a piano and a harpsichord, with the piano’s volume, dynamic control and rapid action and the harpsichord’s twangy metallic voice. The two instruments together, in the hands of consummate masters, are a match made in heaven. Particularly impressive was Kalhor’s rapid pizzicato, which emulates guitar or banjo plucking, but with a wider and more expressive range. A close second was his spectacular use of repeated notes, echoed by those of the santour, which can play trills faster than a piano by bouncing the hammers off the strings like drumsticks.

“I Will Not Stand Alone” is in a category by itself, but probably closest to jazz in its free improvisation. Kahlor said, while signing autographs after the concert, that he and Fard agree on a melody and rhythm “and then take it from there.” There is no written score or pre-arranged plan except that dictated (sometimes) by traditional modes and rhythmic patterns.

One can hear the interchange of ideas in the opening call-and-response sections of some of the pieces, but elsewhere the development seems more like mind-reading. How much is memory and how much inspiration can be discovered by comparing Saturday night’s concert to the CD (World Village – 468100)?

Kahlor, a four-time Grammy nominee, is a founding member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project.