Into the mystic with Persian masters Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard

Duke Performances presents a mind-boggling range of music, from soloists to huge ensembles, in many venues at Duke and in Durham, and regular theater-goers here have become accustomed to glorious experiences. But last night’s event was something extremely special. In conjunction with the Nasher Museum of Art, DP presented Persian classical music virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor, from Teheran, along with Ali Bahrami Fard of Shiraz, Iran, in the small auditorium at the Nasher. This setting gave the concert an intimacy that made the mesmerizing music even more overwhelming.

Kayhan Kalhor. Photo: courtesy Duke Performances.

Kayhan Kalhor. Photo: courtesy Duke Performances.

The Nasher’s current exhibition, Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape and Islamic Art, on view through Dec. 29, created this opportunity for two branches of Duke’s art tree to intertwine. Doris Duke’s former Hawaii home is now the Shangri La Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, and Kalhor has appeared there in concert, and earlier this year, spent time as artist-in-residence there. Doris Duke amassed a very fine collection of Islamic artworks from many cultures; examples are on display, along with more recent artworks by other artists-in-residence at Shangri La, and large photo images of the rooms and grounds. It must have been strange for Kalhor to walk through a representation of rooms he has inhabited.

Classical Persian music depends on the musician mastering a large repertoire, in order to be able to embellish and improvise on it (Kalhor devotes a section of his website to a discussion of the music’s history and forms), no matter which instrument he plays. It includes much resonance, many repetitions with or without variations, and intensely moving melodic lines that flow out like calligraphic ink, or like the graceful arabesques painted into miniatures, woven into textiles or worked into bronze. With Kalhor playing, the music induces a meditative state leading, sometimes, to an ecstatic one: it takes the listener high and far, and the musicians even further. I experience a pleasing double awareness when listening–the awareness of my dancing mind within my body, and an awareness of great elemental imagery conjured by the sounds surging through time. As if from overhead somewhere out in the cosmos, I see vast landscapes of stone and dust, fields of grain and crickets, fast rivers, clear pools, trees, wind, fire, stars in the dark.

At the Nasher, Kalhor played not the kamancheh, the four-stringed spike fiddle with which the world has become familiar through Kalhor’s participation in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, but a recent hybrid instrument devised by Peter Biffin in collaboration with Kalhor. With five strings and seven “sympathetic strings,” the Shah Kaman produces a deeper, richer sound, even more like human singing than the kamancheh. In the small room at the Nasher, one could see clearly how the musician makes the loosely-strung bow taut with his fingers, and how he turns the instrument, not the bow, to play upon different strings. Kalhor also made the Shah Kaman into a tonal percussion instrument by lightly beating on the conical neck while fingering the strings with his left hand. He punctuated these beats with sudden vibrant pluckings, before retrieving his bow.

Most of the time, Kahlor kept his eyes closed, going deep into the mystery, but now and then he glanced quickly at his partner on the bass santour, Ali Bahrami Fard, and they exchanged small blissful smiles. The santour is a struck zither, or as we say around here, a hammered dulcimer. The bass version Fard plays has 96 strings, and produces a powerful ringing into the deeper tones, making it a wonderful accompaniment to the Shah Kaman. Like Kahlor, Fard was completely in the music as it flowed through the minutes, speeding, slowing, swirling, resting, reviving to soar again. At times his mallets moved so rapidly that all one could see were liquid circles of motion.

This was the fourth time I have heard Kalhor live, and by far the most thrilling. I came to him backwards, as it were, from the huge Silk Road Ensemble, from his work with the Brooklyn Rider String Quartet (Silent City!) and with experimental cellist Maya Beiser. I had heard him in a small venue with two or three other musicians, but hearing him play with just one other master, each mentally attuned to the other…there was ecstasy on offer, more than enough for everyone in the room.

Kalhor and Fard collaborated on an album that provides a reasonable alternative to following them from concert to concert. I Will Not Stand Alone, released in 2012, is available on the World Village label.

Sunday Afternoons With COT

Where have I been all these years? Only last spring did I attend my first concert by the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, in the pleasant Fletcher Hall of the Carolina Theatre of Durham–a completely enjoyable afternoon. I had to miss the first concert of the 2013-14 season in October, but fortunately made it for the one on Nov. 17. It was brief, but full of contrasts, and a true refreshment.

The Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, or the COT, as it is affectionately known, is home to a varying cast of professional musicians, and amateurs–in the best sense of the word–lovers of music, with considerable talent and skill, who make their livings otherwise. The COT is led by  artistic director and conductor Lorenzo Muti, whose generous spirit infuses the ensemble (Go here for an interesting 20-year-old article on Muti’s background). Both conductor and players enjoy making a variety of music, so the programs often surprise with their juxtapositions. The COT also brings in guest artists periodically, and often they are rising stars.

“Bulls to Ballrooms” was the program title for the 17th, and the short concert began with a lovely short work, La oration del torero, by Joaquin Turina (1882-1949), during which you can easily imagine the proud bullfighter strutting, admiring himself, then admitting to fear, and praying for protection and glorious victory. During this first piece, the first violin/concert mistress Jennifer Curtis stood out for her violin’s smooth warmth and her own rather splendid bowing style.

Curtis is a Chapel Hill native, currently teaching at UNC, and a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, with a voracious appetite for music making in many forms. Her career takes her to prestigious halls around the US and the world, but currently we have many opportunities to hear her play on her 1777 Vincenzo Panormo violin. Earlier this week she posted this busy schedule on her Jennifer Curtis Violin Facebook page (Friday here refers to Nov. 22):

Friday night i’ll be performing Mozart’s concerto for violin, viola and orchestra
Symphony Concertante with Matt Chicurel
Proudly commemorating 50 years of music making in chapel hill and carrboro, recognizing teachers and performers, students, families and everyone who has helped to shape the classical music seen from a grass roots level for the last 5 decades !
3 cheers for Mary Fran Boyce !!
Friday 7pm Chapel Hill Bible Church

Thursday I am giving a public masterclass at Duke University- 5pm, Bone Hall, Biddle Music building

Also Thursday I’ll be performing with other UNC-CH faculty, students and Alumni for the world premiere of Isaiah, for Choir and orchestra by Stephen Anderson -Hill Hall auditorium, UNC

Sunday I’ll be hosting anther Bows for Beers at Steel string Brewery in Carrboro

Hope to see ya….

One charming feature of the COT programs is the brief talk on each piece given before its performance, usually by Maestro Muti. However, on the 17th, Curtis spoke about Anton Webern’s (1883-1945) Five pieces, op. 5, for string orchestra, written about 1910. Her knowledgeable disquisition offered ways in to the rather persnickety short tonal and textural explorations (Webern was a student of Arnold Schoenberg’s in Vienna). Webern, she said, was “trying to give density to every note. We play every note of the scale in the first two bars.” The pieces are so short, however, that sometimes it seemed to take longer for the orchestra to turn its pages and prepare for the next one than it took to play the previous one, which made for a jerky and uncomfortable whole.

Everyone seemed much happier, understandably, with the beautiful Tchaikovsky Serenade for string orchestra, op. 48. Muti controlled the tempi very smoothly, and again, Jennifer Curtis’ violin stood out, especially in the touchingly rendered third movement, Elegie (Larghetto elegiaco). The Finale (Tema russo) tumbled us out into the late afternoon light, grateful for a community in which music thrives in so many forms.

The next COT concert will take place January 12, 2014, and will be a rather special one. Along with its other fundraising efforts, the COT has recently established the Robert Ward Endowment for the Performance of 20th and 21st Century Music, in honor of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, who spent part of his career in North Carolina, as President of the NC School of the Arts, and later as professor of music at Duke. “Homage to a Musical Pioneer: Honoring Robert Ward” on Jan.12 will include Ward’s Symphony No. 6. Andrew Tyson will appear as guest pianist; the program also includes Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Ticket information is here.

Blues With a Feeling: Taj Mahal and Friends at UNC, “Thank you very please”

phpThumb_generated_thumbnailjpgCarolina Performing Arts continued its American music series and its world music explorations simultaneously on Nov. 12 with the superb bluesman  Taj Mahal, his trio, his daughter Deva and her companion in Fredericks Brown, and the incomparable South African singer and guitarist Vusi Mahlasela in a concert in Memorial Hall that had the crowd hollering from the get-go.

Back in the days when I was hearing Taj (you just gotta love a man who re-names himself for one of the most beautiful things in the world, after starting off as Henry St. Claire Fredericks) in the old Cat’s Cradle and the old ArtsCenter, I never dreamed his skinny frame would fill out to such a degree, or that his insatiable appetite for the music would take him around the world to spread the love. But here he was, the big act, with his bass man and drummer, coming on after two other sets. It was great. He was so good 40 years ago, and he’s exponentially better now. I bet he has callouses on his fingers an inch thick. He had  an electric piano, three banjos and four guitars on stage–one of them–gold-toned–appeared to be a National steel Resonator. It was flashy, but it gave out that old Durham blues sound.

As it should. Young Taj was already steeped in music at home, but at about age 14, he discovered guitar, and learned to play from a neighbor man–from Durham. This was in the mid-1950s, and the Piedmont blues were in their glory days, but Taj also learned the Delta and Texas styles, all the while growing up in Springfield, Mass. He was tied to the South by his mother’s family, who were from “South Cackalacky, Chesterfield County, over by Cheraw, uh huh,” and before too long he was checking out the music of the Carolinas. He came to Carrboro and met Miss Libba Cotten (naturally, he played “Freight Train” Tuesday night, to much whistling and calling), then the late great Miss Etta Baker, from Morganton, and learned her special chords. On and on he has journeyed, banjo and guitar in hand. He played with the best of the living blues men, and now that’s what he is.

Taj Mahal in San Francisco, 2008 © Jay Blakesberg/Retna LTD.

Taj Mahal in San Francisco, 2008 © Jay Blakesberg/Retna LTD.

Still wearing blues jeans and a big straw hat, too. He opened with “Mama’s Goin’ Fishin'” on the gold guitar, finger picking, and frailing down with his thumb, his voice still wonderful at 70+.  Next up was “Corinna,”  then a long string of great blues songs with their unforgettable lyrics: “hand full of gimme, mouth full o’ much obliged;” “if I can’t have that big-legged woman I don’t want no skinny-leg girl at all;” sun gon’ shine in my back door someday.” To make all the classic songs even more remarkable, bass player Bill Rich and drummer Kester Smith played complex contra-rhythms that created an extremely rich and resonant sound. It was a little disappointing that Taj didn’t play more banjo tunes, but a person can’t really complain when there’s a gold National guitar instead.

Fredericks Brown had opened the evening with a short, and enthusiastic, if not particularly distinguished, set of their own songs. Deva Mahal has a beautiful voice, however, and her father’s knack with phrasing. When she returned later to sing with Taj, they made glorious music.

Vusi Mahlasela. Photo: Aaron Farrington.

Vusi Mahlasela. Photo: Aaron Farrington.

Vusi Mahlasela’s set was very happy-making. Another big man of mature years, he came quietly on stage, slowly strapped on his large guitar, stretched his arms out horizontally for a long moment, then took a pause to get centered, before letting the steel strings ring out. He sang a South African song in two of the country’s eleven languages, accompanying the lilting, swaying tune with fabulous vocal trills, hollers, and hums, going down into prolonged growls now and then. He explained that the song dated from the Apartheid era, and its lyric called on people who had done bad things to come forward and be forgiven–if not, they would be exposed. “We should all wear forgiveness like a crown,” he said. His other songs were in the same vein–the next was a prayer for humanity–and the music in each was life-affirming. “Thank you very please,” he said after each song. He, too, returned to join the Taj Mahal Trio and Fredericks Brown, for a grand finale, ending with “Everybody is Somebody, Nobody is Nobody.”

Thank you very please!

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