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Music Review

All-Star Group Assembled for Stunning Persian Program

February 05, 2001|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Persian classical music is one of the wonders of the Middle East. Centuries old, a symbiotic blending of poetry, melody and rhythm, it offers a compelling listening experience, even to Western ears unfamiliar with either the language or the many subtleties of its complex musical twists and turns.

On Saturday night at USC's Bovard Auditorium, Los Angeles was treated to a rare opportunity to hear what was, in essence, an Iranian all-star ensemble: singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian, who has been described, with considerable justification, as the "nightingale supreme" of Iranian classical music; Hossein Alizadeh, a brilliant composer and performer on the tar, a long-necked lute; Kayhan Kalhor, a kamancheh (or spiked fiddle) player well known via his work with the Persian/Indian ensemble Ghazal; and Shajarian's talented son Homayoun Shajarian on tombak drum and vocals.

The evening unfolded with two of the extended, improvisationally based performances that are the essence of Persian classical music. The first was based upon the maqam (somewhat analogous to a mode or scale) Dad o Bidad and the poetry of Mehdi Akhavan Saless. The second, using the poetry of Rumi, was cast within one of the 12 traditional systems of melodies called dastgahs, in this case the dastgah Nava.

Mohammad Reza Shajarian's vocal excursions provided the centerpiece for each improvisation, his velvet-toned voice reaching from dark, baritone, recitative-like passages into brilliant, reverberating head tones. Further enhancing the beauty of his presentation, his phrases were filled with arching, melismatic passages through the piquant, 24 semitones to the octave, melodic phrasing that is characteristic of Persian music.

Add to that the stunning instrumental interludes provided by Alizadeh, Kalhor and Homayoun Shajarian, and it was no wonder that the packed, ecstatically enthusiastic crowd insisted upon encores that took the program well toward the midnight hour. The Persian Arts Society's only error was in not programming more events by this gifted, world-class musical ensemble.

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