Within the vast realms of so-called “world music,” some foreign musical traditions get an additional label: “classical.” It’s often hard to define exactly which music is classical or folk or pop or something else altogether, but if a musical style has centuries of tradition, rigorous training and complex theoretical foundations, it probably deserves to be called “classical” just as much as the music of Bach or Mozart does. Such is the case with Persian classical music. Yet at the same time, Persian classical music involves elements of improvisation. So is it more like jazz? And when vocalists sing Persian poetry, it can sound not all that far-removed from folk music. And is easy to imagine this music channeled into something more like Western rock music. Ah, such is the futility of obsessing too much about labels.
In any case, Persian music received the sort of reverence and respect it deserves on Tuesday night (Feb. 23) with a concert at Chicago’s Symphony Center by the aptly named ensemble Masters of Persian Music. One of the stars of this year’s tour is Kayhan Kalhor, who plays a violin-like instrument called the kamancheh (and who recorded a terrific 2008 album called Silent City with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, who performed a local concert last week.)
The first half of Tuesday’s concert was a 45-minute improvised duet between Kalhor and Hossen Alizadeh, who was playing the shour angiz, an instrument similar to a lute or bouzouki. At times, Kalhor and Alizadeh were simultaneously playing distinct melodies, while staying in perfect harmony with one another. It seemed as if they were coming up with a sophisticated counterpoint right on the spot. At other times, their duet became a call and response, with the airy tone of the five-string kamancheh repeating the trilled notes of the shour angiz (or vice versa). The music rose and fell several times, moving from meditation to frenzy, from a feeling of stasis to a sensation of galloping.
After an intermission, Kalhor and Alizadeh were joined by singer Hamid Reza Nourbakhsh and four other musicians. Siamak Jahangiry played the ney, a kind of flute; Hamidreza Maleki played the santur, a percussive string instrument similar to the cimbalom or zither; Pezham Akhavass played the tombak drum; and Fariborz Azizi played the bass tar (a variation of guitar). Alizadeh switched to playing tar during this set.
The ensemble performed a series of songs based on old Persian Sufi poems. The songs ran together into one seamless set, about an hour long, sometimes delicate and tinkly, sometimes fierce and rhythmic. Some of the other musicians chanted in unison with Nourbakhsh at times. Nourbaksh’s singing sometimes brought to mind the Pakistani Sufi singer Nusrah Fateh Ali Khan. In quieter moment, he sang with a placid, peaceful sense, but then he would let loose with some strong, piercing notes. The overall effect conjured up images in my mind of musicians and singers sitting in a royal court in ancient Persia, performing for a king.
The CSO program for this concert included English translations of the beautiful poems being sung. I was especially struck by a poem by Shaf’i Kadkani, which includes this couplet:
Alas for this hypocrite people who in this two-faced city
Are, all of them, by day sheriff and by night wine-sellers.