Entertainment & Arts

Persian culture celebrated at American Composers Festival

Carl St.Clair, the music director and principal conductor of Orange Country’s Pacific Symphony, was a bit taken aback at one of the programming choices for the 2012 edition of the organization’s American Composers Festival. This year’s theme is “Nowruz — Celebrating Spring,” marking the Persian New Year and celebrating the prominent Iranian American community and its vast cultural legacy.

There’s a world premiere of an oratorio by Iranian American composer Richard Danielpour and collaborations between the symphony and Persian music troupe the Shams Ensemble.

And to kick off each of the first three nights in the four-day festival at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Iranian conductor Farhad Mechkat — a “distinguished hero,” St.Clair says, for his progressive efforts at the helm of the Tehran Symphony Orchestra in the years leading to the 1979 Islamic revolution — is being flown in to lead the orchestra in a classic he handpicked for the event.

But it’s that choice that gave St.Clair pause: “The Dances of Galánta” by Zoltán Kodály. Yes, a suite of pieces written in 1933 by a Hungarian composer from folk dances of his childhood home town.

What does this have to do with Nowruz or Persian American culture?

“The specifically Iranian part of it is myself!” Mechkat says.

He laughs heartily at his declaration but stands by his selection.

“The theme of the evening is the coming of spring,” says Mechkat, whose résumé includes bringing the Tehran Symphony Orchestra to world-class stature in the years before the revolution. “The joyful celebratory character of Kodály’s music is most apropos.”

St.Clair, though, wasn’t so sure. After all, the rest of the program is at once directly tied to the theme and impressively ambitious.

Danielpour’s “Toward a Season of Peace” is a seven-movement oratorio in Hebrew, Farsi, Arabic, Aramaic and English, sung by soprano Hila Plitmann and the Pacific Chorale, capping the composer’s midlife reconciliation with, and exploration of, his Persian heritage. The Shams Ensemble has crafted arrangements of traditional material for collaborative performances with the symphony.

And in preparation for his role, St.Clair took on intensive study of Persian history and culture, developing a passionate attachment to the mystical verse of 13th century poet Rumi, the key figure in Persian/Sufi arts.

Ultimately, St.Clair was swayed by Mechkat’s enthusiasm and saw the link between Kodály’s dedicated embrace of musical border-crossing and this festival’s ideals.

“It optimizes what we’ve done, taking music basically from the land and formulating it into the symphonic world,” St.Clair says.

Turning this year’s American Composer’s Festival into a Nowruz celebration came organically. Inaugurated in 2000 marking the Aaron Copland centennial, the festival has in some years honored specific composers (Philip Glass last year) and in others taken a broader cultural approach (the Los Sonidos de Mexico focus of 2007).

Last year a conversation St.Clair had with Pacific Symphony board member Anoosheh Oskouian, of Persian origins, turned to discussion of Nowruz as a theme for an event tied to Southern California’s prominent Iranian culture and its rich musical history.

“We had to take big lessons,” St.Clair says. “What does it mean? The worst thing you can do is have a festival that doesn’t have respect and the historic context.”

Working closely with Oskouian and Bita Milanian, executive director of Pacific Symphony partner the Farhang Foundation, St.Clair set out to develop a program featuring an American composer and traditional Persian musicians. For the latter, he was directed to the Shams Ensemble, founded more than 30 years ago in Tehran by Kaykhosro Pournazeri and anchored today by him and his sons Tahmoures and Sohrab. Now based in Berkeley, Shams builds on the repertoire of the Persian lute known as the tanbur, with a wide-ranging scope encompassing the vibrant musical traditions tied to Rumi poetry and folk music from Persian and Kurdish cultures.

“It’s an exciting time that Americans have so much experience with Iran and are seeing Iran in a different light,” Sohrab Pournazeri says. “A lot of Americans have had exposure to the country, with an Iranian film winning [best foreign-language film] at the Oscars and in the news, for better or worse. Our goal is for the audience to take away an experience where they are touched by a new Iran, a new culture of Iran.”

Danielpour’s “Toward a Season of Peace” comes out of a very personal journey. The child of Persian-Jewish immigrants, he was left with bad associations of Iran, starting with an unpleasant visit there when he was 7 and later the post-revolution execution of an uncle.

“All of this I wanted to keep at a distance,” says the New York-based composer.

But in the late ‘90s, he was moved to explore and ultimately embrace his heritage. The 2009 “Green” movement, though stymied by the Iranian regime, was particularly inspiring. He wrote a trio, “Remember Neda,” honoring the young woman whose shooting death during a demonstration became a global image of the movement, and a symphony, “Darkness in the Ancient Valley,” drawing on his feelings about the current state of affairs in Iran.

The new work, which uses Rumi verse and other texts, takes it further, as he sees his own renewal mirrored in hopes for a larger cultural and political reconciliation. He feared it would not fit the theme of the festival but was reassured and encouraged by Pacific Symphony president John Forsyte and board member Oskouian, who spearheaded much of the efforts behind the festival.

“I said what I’d really want to write was something about war and peace,” he says of his first response to being approached. “Anoosheh said, ‘In a way it’s the same thing. If your piece is about healing and reparation, then it’s about Nowruz.’ So that is why the title is ‘Toward a Season of Peace.’ The season of course is spring. Many of the texts I use refer to spring directly or obliquely as a metaphor for transformation.”

And that comes back to Mechkat and his Kodály selection as prelude.

“It can be playful, can be shy,” he says. “It is joyful. It makes you want to get up and dance. All of those things. It is saying that everybody falls in love with spring. All those cliches are there. But so wonderfully, genuinely and authentic.”

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