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.

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