Of recent Orlando Philharmonic programs, perhaps none has proved as opportune and timely as next Monday’s East Meets West, particularly for the inclusion of music by Kayhan Kalhor, a contemporary Iranian composer and kamancheh master (a Persian spiked fiddle). Kalhor, a four-time Grammy Award nominee, will join the Orlando Phil as soloist for a performance of his 2007 piece Silent City.
With the foul air of Trumpism’s xenophobia still lingering, a short excursion to the sound world of the Middle East (embodied by Kalhor himself – both his presence in town and his history) is immensely apropos in our ongoing effort to embrace cosmopolitanism and the human values underlying the culture that industrious immigrants bring to the United States.
Born in Kermanshah, Kalhor has traversed the world as a composer, soloist and virtuoso. His music assumes the Persian flavor of his homeland while rendering its native attributes and idiosyncrasies compatible with Western formalities. The result is a shared musical sympathy of traditions otherwise divided by national boundaries and cultures, which Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble exemplifies. A founding member, Kalhor composes for Ma’s traveling group and is featured in the 2015 documentary The Music of Strangers.
Kalhor was a teenager at the time of the 1978 Iranian Revolution, a period which was to influence his career deeply. He started to play violin at age 5 and soon turned to the kamancheh. At the time of the revolution he had decided to pursue music studies, but the political unrest pushed him out to other countries, in 1981, including Canada, where he studied music in the European tradition. A resident of the United States, Kalhor returned to Iran in 1997 and has been on both sides of the Atlantic since. The political unrest in Iran, where he revisited his roots, has made his relationship with his own country – and with his wife – difficult.
Silent City, featured on albums by both Silk Road Ensemble and Brooklyn Rider (with ex-cellist Eric Jacobsen, the Orlando Phil’s current conductor), is a tribute to the Iraqi village of Halabjah. Situated near the border with Iran, the village was destroyed with chemical weapons on March 16, 1988, under the regime of Saddam Hussein. At least 5,000 died on a single day. “I always wanted to do something to remember that,” Kalhor told the New Republic in 2011.
The meditative half-hour piece opens with a traditional Turkish melody and features a solo kamancheh, enclosed by strings (in four parts) and percussion. The Iranian bowed instrument has a rounded wooden bottom for resonance, which is covered with sheepskin. It was a shadowy, though richly expressive sound; its melancholic tone is entrancing. The bottom has an endpin, similar to that of a cello, which rests on the player’s thigh when he sits or on the floor when he kneels.
“Unlike many handheld fiddles in Western culture, you hold the [kamancheh] with your left hand and you turn it so the right hand just bows in one direction, but the instrument has to turn, to enable you to access different strings,” explains Kalhor in the short documentary Songs of Hope. The left hand has the triple role of holding the neck, fingering the strings and turning the instrument.
Silent City builds up slowly, rising in introspective, slow breaths. The tempo picks up with a steady pulse from the cello, about 10 minutes in, which adds a strong beat to what had previously floated in non-metric weightlessness with a distinct Middle Eastern spirit. A slow, drawn-out episode follows; it is joined again by agitated strings and percussion, ending the piece in upbeat unison.
“It’s a very special and soulful sound for me that helps me go through different stages of my life,” says Kalhor, 53, in Songs of Hope, reflecting on his own aging alongside this singularly unusual instrument (and exotic, for Western ears).
With Silent City, the Orlando Phil embraces the multiculturalism at the heart of a healthy democracy – however idealistic it might presently seem – that honors foreign cultures and the dignity of their people. In the face of Trump’s recent blemish on American foreign policy, we can only accept this performance of Silent City as a sign of toleration and ethnic inclusion, and hope it serves as a motivating microcosm of what could be the real world.