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A 'Nightingale' so mesmerizing

Shahram Nazeri's astonishing voice soars over a mix of Iranian and Western sounds.

August 20, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Iranian singer Shahram Nazeri has been described, with some hyperbole, as "The Persian Nightingale" and "Iran's Pavarotti." But his performance Friday night at Disney Hall suggested that neither label provides an accurate depiction of the length and breadth of either his art or his voice.

The program featured a pair of ensembles -- five players in the first half; seven in the second -- performing compositions by Nazeri's son, Hafez, incorporating combinations of Western and Iranian instruments. At the center of the music, driving it, illuminating it, enhancing it, was Shahram's Nazeri's voice.

Terms such as "Nightingale" and "Pavarotti" are inadequate because they are far too simplistic as references. Nazeri is indeed as mesmerizing as a nightingale, but his interpretive range -- even for listeners who have no understanding of his language -- reaches beyond night music into the full gamut of emotional expressiveness.

Nor is he a tenor, like Pavarotti, singing a familiar repertoire. Nazeri's vocal range reached from whisper-soft, utterly intimate chest tones to ringing, high falsettos, sometimes sliding with astonishing ease from one to the other.

What he sang -- much of it based upon poetic Rumi lines such as "I have returned, returned from my beloved. . . " -- was spontaneously invented. Like a jazz artist, Nazeri's improvisations were delivered within specific musical frameworks. And the genius of Nazeri -- like that of, say, John Coltrane or Charlie Parker -- is his capacity to create, on the spot, extraordinary aural visions.

At one point, Nazeri came onstage alone, accompanying himself on a lute-like setar, singing a tune familiar to the many Iranians in the full house. Unlike the soaring impromptus, its simple, repetitive melody had the instant familiarity of pop songs from every culture. Yet even here, Nazeri brought a transcendent quality to every note he sang.

The compositions by Hafez Nazeri -- the "Rumi Symphony Project: Cycle I" -- reached beyond the iconic Persian poet-philosopher to find inspiration from Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis," as well.

The younger Nazeri's goal has been to find a common ground between instrumental cultures without having to distort the essential elements of each. For the most part, he succeeded in doing so.

The opening "OM" segment, for example, featuring the brilliant playing of cellist Ben Hong, moved from a meditative beginning into a Western-like cadenza, subtly combing qualities of East and West.

Other segments took similar tacks, with well-crafted playing from bassist David Moore, cellist Dennis Karmazyn, violists Louise Schulman and Liuh Wen Ting, and dramatic displays of daf drumming from Hussein Zahawy and Indian tabla playing from Salar Nader.

A few passages, especially in the premiere performance of "Eternity," could clearly have benefited from additional rehearsal time.

But that's a small complaint for a program that allowed Shahram Nazeri's voice to soar over an ambitious collection of cross-cultural music.

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