At a time when unsettling rumors of impending war seem inescapable, there’s something altogether fitting about a concert presenting two giants of Persian classical music at a West Berkeley center for yoga and meditation. Tehran’s Hossein Alizadeh and Los Angeles-based Pejman Hadadi conclude a North American tour Saturday at the Rudramandir Center on Bancroft Way.
Alizadeh is best known in the West as a founding member of the Masters of Persian Music, an ensemble that has helped raise the international profile of Iran’s millennia old classical tradition. Hailed as his generation’s most vivid and eloquent instrumentalist, he’s a visionary composer, and virtuoso of the Persian plucked lute, or tar. In Iran, where the 1979 Islamic revolution led to a stark generational gap as older masters fled overseas, Alizadeh provides invaluable continuity as an artist steeped in the vast body of traditional melodies known as the Radif, a vocabulary intimately intertwined with the rhythms of classical Persian poetry.
“Classical musicians are ranked in a well-respected hierarchy based on whether they have studied with a certain number of masters and learned the goushehs of the dastgah,” says Abbas Milani, director of Stanford University’s Iranian Studies Program, referring to the modes and melodies that make up the Radif. “There’s a consensus that Alizadeh is someone who has delved deeply but also innovatively, particularly by bringing elements of folkloric music into the classical structures. His most famous songs use all the ornamentation and all the structures of classical music, but infuse it with vivacity and energy of folkloric and ethnic music.”
Hadadi is part of the vast Iranian diaspora community in Los Angeles, and he’s known for developing a highly expressive approach through his research into the shared roots of Persian and North Indian traditions. For Saturday’s concert, Alizadeh and Hadadi are playing improvised melodies inspired by the feel of the room and audience, and the mood of the moment.
“Pejman is one of the greatest tombak players I’ve ever seen,” says Pezhham Akhavass, a Tehran-born San Francisco-based tombek player who arranged the Berkeley concert. “He’s added some new patterns for Persian rhythm, and he’s performed with greatest masters in Persian classical music, and great musicians from other countries. This concert is so exciting because they have a chance to create something in the moment. Mr. Alizadeh always brings something new.”
Sadly, Persian music has thrived more outside of Iran in recent decades. The Islamic revolution that engulfed the country in 1979 didn’t just sweep away the old political order. Under Ayatollah Khomeini’s strict interpretation of Shiite Islam, just about every form of music was banned, including the nation’s supremely sophisticated classical tradition with roots stretching back to Persia’s pre-Islamic Sassanian Dynasty.
Kayhan Kalhor, the unsurpassed master of the kamancheh, an ancient four-string spiked violin, launched the Masters of Persian Music with Alizadeh partly as a way to repair the post-revolution generational divide among Iranian musicians. A founding member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, he lived in Europe and the United States for about two decades before moving back to Iran in 2003, only to leave once again after crackdown on failed Green Revolution that brought thousands of protesters onto the streets following the contested June, 2009 presidential election.
“All of the old masters left Iran around the revolution in search of better situations and more concerts,” Kalhor said. “There are thousands of brilliant young technicians in Iran now, but there’s this gap between two generations, and there’s a lot that’s missing in the music. This happened in every art form.”
Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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