A Shattering Performance by Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard at the Asia Society
“So many moments,” murmured one concertgoer to his friend after watching Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard play a shattering version of their duo suite I Will Not Stand Alone to a sold-out audience at the Asia Society Saturday night.
“The Jimi Hendrix of kamancheh!” his friend exclaimed. Actually, the instrument that Kalhor, the iconic Iranian composer and string player, had been using was a custom-made “shah kaman,” which combines elements of the Turkish tanbur, Chinese erhu and the Persian kamancheh fiddle. Fard also played a modern instrument, a bass santoor, which is tuned an octave lower than the traditional Persian hammered dulcimer and delivered a spine-tingling, richly resonant sound akin to the lower midrange of the piano mingling with a distant meteor shower of microtones much further up the scale. And while Kalhor’s compositions draw deeply on Persian classical music, this work is completely in the here and now. The Asia Society has been celebrating the music of Iran this fall, with a final concert this coming December 7 at 8 PM with the prosaically titled but exciting, jazz-inclined Iranian/Syrian ensemble Sound: The Encounter.
I Will Not Stand Alone portrays profound sadness, but also profound resilience. The people of Iran have suffered greatly under brutal repression since the late 70s (and before then, life under the Shah was no picnic for a lot of people, either). Kalhor’s program notes spoke to how music gave him and his fellow citizens hope throughout the darkest hours of the Khomeini regime. But this enigmatic, dynamically-charged theme and variations resonates beyond any borders: as an account of suffering and transcendence, it ranks with the most powerful works of Shostakovich or any western composer. And while the two musicians followed the arc and movements of the recording of it they released last year, this was hardly a rote, note-for-note rendition, each player following the other’s improvisations closely as it went along. It began elegaically, Kalhor using the shah kaman’s cello-like low register for a misty, opaque tone as Fard played hypnotic, rhythmic ripples or gentle, austere accents. But the shah kaman, and the kamancheh, can also evoke weeping, and there was no absence of that once the work got rolling, Fard’s elegant volleys and understated, artful variations on a recurrent chromatic vamp propelling it until then.
The musicians’ cameraderie was so tightly aligned it was often as if they were one and the same instrument; despite the sonic differences between the two instruments, it was often hard to tell who was playing what, not that it really mattered. Once they reached about the midway point, Kalhor took centerstage, much more animatedly than he usually does, quite possibly because this work is so autobiographical and close to his heart. He swirled through a circular theme for Fard to ornament, threw off a handful of lightning, spiraling descending motives and angst-fueled, leaping cadenzas, then finally backed away. Fard then moved in with a glimmer that was as precise and sonically exquisite as it was distantly menacing. A lively, even wryly amusing country dance fueled by Kalhor’s rapidfire bowing quickly got twisted out of shape and took on a macabre, maimed character. Leaping flourishes from Kalhor on the way out ended the concert with an exhilarating display of chops that still left a lingering note of disquiet. It is hard to think of a composer or a soloist who so vividly captures the state of the world in 2013 as Kayhan Kalhor, and Fard matched that intensity as well: this was as state-of-the-art as music gets these days.
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