The rapturous reception given Iran's traditional music ensemble Homay and the Mastan Group in their debut U.S. performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night was well-deserved, not just for their dazzling innovations on old musical forms, but for the inspiring audacity shown by the group's very formation.
The seven-member ensemble was founded by Parvaz Homay, a young man (still in his 20s) carrying on the Persian tradition of chameh soraei, in which a musician composes, writes his own lyrics and sings. His ensemble comprises handpicked experts on the customary Persian instrumentation, including the four-stringed tar, the reedy, flute-like ney, the upright fiddle called kamanche and the multistringed hammered zither, santoor.
Calling their performance "A Forbidden Journey" -- also the name of the ensemble's latest album -- Homay and his colleagues, inspired by the Sufi poets Rumi and Hafez, aimed to reestablish the old Persian practice of creating music that can make the listener reach a higher level of consciousness. Their nearly three-hour performance at Disney Hall achieved this effect via Homay's heartfelt lyrics and groundbreaking music, which builds on the older folklorical styles with bold new structures, rhythms and melodic schemes.
These 18 pieces were performed in exhilarating style, with each player functioning as both soloist and ensemble member. The pieces generally were worked out in formats that accommodated substantial personal interpretation by the individual players.
The opening "Man az Jahani Degaram" presented the basic outline of the evening's works, which were characterized by lengthy elaborations on the traditional song-shape. Other pieces used a set-up of introductory duet by the vocalist with various instruments -- such as the lute-like oud or the tombak. The entire group would then play a more orchestrated version based on themes and/or rhythms alluded to in the preliminary duet.
The modernity of the group's approach to this mainly non-harmonic music (i.e., it's not built on chords) became even more evident by its emphasis on a textural harmony that resulted from the blending of tones emanating from the particular instrumentation Homay had selected.
While many of these pieces were of extended length and of unpredictable pattern and pulse (which created a few amusingly failed attempts by the audience to clap along), they were nevertheless highly engaging and often even quite simply presented. The words of revered Persian poets Parvin Etesami and Saghir Esfahani were interpreted by Homay himself in a high-pitched, richly nuanced vocal style as he conducted the band with bold strokes on twin clay drums.
These were mesmerizing performances that produced a euphoric goodwill in the listener, a feeling that lingered long after departure from the concert hall.