Concert review
(first published in Habibi, 1996)
International Music Academy
Sunday, 19 May 1996
Wilshire Ebell Theater, Los Angeles

The tradition of western classical music composers incorporating folkloric themes into their compositions is well-known: Bartok, Khatchetourian, Liszt, Tschaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, all have created beautiful compositions in this way. It should be no surprise, therefore, to find Iranian musicians, singers, and choreographers following this same path, as was demonstrated at the Wilshire Ebell on Sunday May 19, with, however, somewhat mixed results.

The evening began with performances on the piano by the brothers Hamid and Saeed Dehimi, both as soloists, and then together. Let there be no doubt of the skills of these talented musicians; the compositions were lovely, and brilliantly executed. While perhaps more reminiscent of Tschaikovsky than of Iranian traditional music, their melodies explored the possibilities of Iranian music themes within the limits of the piano, which after all, cannot play the musical note intervals that form the essential melodic element of Iranian traditional music.

Following were two songs composed and performed on guitar by Ziba Shirazi. Guitar is not a traditional Iranian instrument, and is unsuited to Iranian traditional music for the same reason that the piano is — it cannot play the musical note intervals of Iranian music. Miss Shirazi was unhindered by this, as her compositions on feminist themes shared more in common with American protest songs than with any traditional Iranian song style. Her voice was strong and somewhat strident; nonetheless, her delivery was powerful, and the audience were moved both by her lyrics, and her dynamic presence, both as a soloist, and when later joined by the Dehimis on piano.

The last item before intermission was a dance performed by Shida Pegahi and her “Ney-Nava” dance group. The dancers were well-trained in ballet and other dance disciplines, and gave to the Persian movements a strength and control not often seen in this dance form. Miss Pegahi herself is a lovely dancer, although occasionally her movements seemed somewhat jarringly jerky. A puzzling part of the performance was the costuming: an Iranian imitation of western fantasies of Persian costume, consisting of a long-sleeved crop-top with navel bare, an A-line miniskirt over slim trousers, and topped with an “I-Dream-of-Jeannie” hat. Similarly odd costuming appeared in another choreography for six dancers, to taped music.

A better demonstration of Miss Pegahi’s technique was provided in a solo dance, accompanied only by Siamak Pouian on the tonbak, the Persian wooden goblet drum. Her dancing was strong and elegant, with flashing spins, but lacked the spontaneity and connection with the audience that are so much a part of traditional Iranian performing arts. Once more the costume was a puzzlement: a sleeveless bodice and knee-length chiffon skirt over wide knee-length bloomers, topped again with the I-Dream-of-Jeannie hat.

The most exciting part of the program came when Mr. Pouian wowed the audience with his pyrotechnic skill on the tonbak. His solo performance demonstrated in ever-changing patterns the rhythmic and tonal possibilities of the instrument. Mr. Pouian was then joined by an impressive array of some 20 of his students, on tonbak and daf (frame drum), as well as soloist Aaron Plunkett on the Brazilian berimbao(percussion bow), African Kete drum, bones, and more. An improvised duet between Mr. Pouian and Mr. Plunkett provided the most thrilling moments of the evening.

Almost entirely missing from the concert was improvisation, a characteristic of Iranian classical performing arts that largely distinguishes them from those of the West. Improvisation is what gives the traditional arts their spiritual content, and which has the capacity to transform both performer and audience. With the exception of the percussion duets, all the music was thoroughly composed, all the dances tightly choreographed; even the drum accompaniment to Miss Pegahi’s solo dance was played from sheet music.

But this concert was less about the preservation of tradition, than about the commingling of two cultures, about what happens when east-meets-west. In this latter aspect, it succeeded, though I still prefer the former.

— Robyn Friend