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Music review: Pacific Symphony celebrates Iranian New Year

March 23, 2012 |  1:11 pm

Members of the Shams Ensemble perform with the Pacific Symphony
The Pacific Symphony was, Thursday night, the pacific Symphony, an orchestra serving the cause for peace.

The circumstance was the opening at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall of the orchestra’s 11th annual American Composers Festival. This year’s focus was Persian, partly in recognition of the large Iranian American community in Orange County.

The theme was innocuous on the surface, a celebration of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, which begins the first day of spring. It’s an occasion for Iranians of all religions and ethnicities to come together. On Nowruz, people who stopped talking to each other are encouraged to try again.

We don’t, however, live in an innocuous world, and the festival’s news was the premiere of Richard Danielpour’s portentous 51-minute “Toward a Season of Peace.” It got a unanimous standing ovation. Political observers overlook classical concerts as useful litmus tests for popular sentiment toward war and peace. But given the current Iranian situation and Orange County’s reputation for championing conservative causes, this instance perhaps merits noting.

The premiere had, of course, been years in the planning and the orchestra went out of its way to steer clear of politics. In a pre-concert talk Danielpour, an American composer born to Iranian parents, said he had until now distanced himself from his heritage in his work. But thinking about poet Maya Angelou’s remark that we are all more alike than different, he was struck by the fact that Christians, Jews and Muslims all acknowledge the same God and all advocate peace.

The concert put the oratorio for solo soprano, chorus and orchestra -- and conducted with convincing fervor by Carl St.Clair -- in a curious, but not ineffective, context. The program began with the guest appearance of a distinguished Iranian conductor, Farhad Mechkat, performing Kodály’s Dances of Galánta, which is based on Hungarian folk music. That was followed by an appearance of the exceptional Iranian folk ensemble Shams, joining the orchestra.

Hungary and Iran are separated by 2,000 miles. Yet viewed from far-off Orange County, the differences were Angelou-like, not as interesting as the similarities. The impulse to dance and the emotionalism expressed through elaborate melismatic melody felt more like musical dialects than, say, the radical dissimilarities of smooth Farsi and guttural Hungarian.

Mechkat, who was trained in the West and now lives in New York, was a former music director of the Tehran Symphony Orchestra, an important and cosmopolitan ensemble that became marginalized after the 1979 Iranian revolution. Mechkat's account of the Kodály dances revealed an excellent Old World conductor, who was rhythmically firm but who generated a deep, dug-in tone from the orchestra.

The seven-member Shams Ensemble, which plays on traditional instruments, is a knockout. The arrangements of the three pieces -– by Shams founder Kaykhosro Pournazeri and his sons Sohrab and Tahmoures -– were complex, all beginning with soulful solos and ending in ecstatic dance. Sohrab Pournazeri was also the standout soloist on the lute-like tanbur and the kamancheh, a spike fiddle, although the orchestral arrangements tended towards oriental kitsch and the amplification was crude.

Danielpour’s oratorio takes a grand overview of the Middle East. The texts for the seven movements come from the Old and New Testament and Arabic poetry, sung in their original Hebrew, Aramaic, Farsi and Arabic. Three Rumi poems, set for the Israeli soprano soloist Hila Plitmann, who sang the premiere from memory, were in English translation.

The first three movements consider war and the score is oracular. The middle movement -– which revolves around the Ecclesiastes sentiment that for everything there is a season and the Lord’s Prayer –- poses the war or peace question. The final three movements remind us that all we need is love.

Danielpour’s orchestral writing has a smooth grandeur that is very easy to listen to and readily draws a listener into the texts. The Pacific Chorale did not bring out the different characters of the languages but it did bring out the character of Danielpour’s music. Plitmann was spectacular, although light amplification was not always flattering to her.

Leonard Bernstein has often been an influence on Danielpour’s music, and it was again here. But it’s the big symphonic Bernstein, not the more personal, which is what this piece, perhaps, lacked. Still, Danielpour held an audience for nearly an hour and made a persuasive plea for peace at a time and in a place where that was neither an easy nor obvious thing to do.

RELATED:

Music review: Pacific Symphony concert takes wing

Persian culture celebrated at American Composers Festival

Music review: Pacific Symphony shows off Chinese composers

-- Mark Swed

Pacific Symphony, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets: $25 to $185. (714) 755-5799 or www.PacificSymphony.org.

Photo: Members of the Shams Ensemble perform with the Pacific Symphony Thursday night at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. Credit: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times.

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