Arts Listings

Oakland East Bay Symphony Celebrates Persian New Year

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday March 14, 2008

The Oakland East Bay Symphony, conducted by director Michael Morgan, will present a unique collaborative program, Notes from Persia, at 8 p.m. tonight (Friday) at the Paramount Theatre. 

The program features the U.S. premiere of Aminollah Hossein’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (1946), played by Tara Kamangar, the suite from Loris Tjernavorian’s opera Rostam and Sohrab (1963), with the composer present, and six folk songs from different regions and cultural traditions of Persia, sung by mezzo-soprano Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai in new orchestral arrangements by composer David Garner. The program will open with Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini” and Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Don Juan.” 

The concert will coincide with Nowwuz, the ancient Persian New Year’s and spring holiday, dating from Zoroastrian times, which is celebrated over much of the Middle East and Central Asia with picnics, music, poetry recital and song. 

“It has all been a person-to-person connection in putting this together,” said an enthusiastic Michael Morgan. “It was Patrice Hidu, who is the project manager running our office, who pointed out to me that there is a large, music-loving community in the Bay Area nobody has really reached out to. And at a Christmas party for Festival Opera, I heard Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai sing a Persian folk song. She got David Garner of the S.F. Music Conservatory to arrange six diverse songs for orchestra, and helped greatly to publicize the concert in the Persian community.” 

Morgan talked about the very personable—and very Persian—way the program unfolded.  

“Omid Zoufonoun, my conducting student, whose father was a rather famous performer of Persian classical music, told me about Tara Kamangar, who sent a CD,” Morgan said. “She is not only a great pianist, but has proven to be a wonderful collaborator—the real thing. She told me about Tjeknavorian. He just flew in last Sunday from Tehran. I would love to do his whole opera. He has an English version prepared. I have learned so much putting this together. It is wonderful music, but even more wonderful are the incredible people I have met.” 

Morgan commented on Hossein’s concerto and Tjeknavorian’s opera, based on stories from the medieval Persian epic poem, the Shanameh (Book of Kings) by Firdosi: “You notice right away how closely the modern pieces are melodically—and rhythmically—related to the traditional folk songs. They are very melodious modern music. Especially Tjeknavorian’s. The rhythms are enormously complicated, especially in his finale. I am going into rehearsal right now with the mezzo—who can’t make the dress rehearsal (She’s starring in Carmen at Livermore Opera)—to go over the material together, so I am up on all the characteristics and can teach the orchestra. There is only so much you can write down, and we are all trying to do, deciding how to beat out the Persian 6/8, which seems to us more like a 3—‘I Like To Be In America,’ like that—to work out the groove in these rhythms.” 

Asked if Persian music swings, Morgan answered, “It does!” 

“Putting together this concert has been one of my favorite projects,” Morgan concluded. “It has been a continuation of the symphony’s mission, to reach out to all sorts of corners and parts of our community ... Given the current political tensions between our two countries, I thought this would be a good time to reach out to the Bay Area Persian community, to showcase their extraordinary musical heritage. What better time than now to use the power of music to bring our people together?”  

Aminollah Hossein was born in 1905 in Samarkand, but spent the majority of his professional life in exile in France after musical studies in Russia and Germany. A master of the Persian stringed instrument, the taar, he was deeply influenced by Persian classical music. A prolific composer—20 film scores, three piano concertos, and extensive works for ballet, symphony orchestra and solo piano—his major works include the “Persepolis Symphony” (1947), a 1951 symphony based on the ruba’i (quatrains) of poet and astronomer Omar Khayyam and his ballet “Miniatures Iraniennes” (1975). 

Loris Tjeknavorian, born in 1937, studied at the Tehran Conservatory, to which he returned, becoming a faculty member, after advanced studies at the Vienna Music Academy. He was later named director of the National Music Archive and composer-in-residence and principal conductor of Tehran’s Rudaki Opera House Orchestra. Tjeknavorian has conducted many of the world’s leading symphonies and has made over 100 recordings. The opera Rostam and Sohrab is one of over 75 diverse works. 

Tara Kamangar has played solo piano in venues ranging from London’s Wathen Hall and Leighton House Museum to the Wattis Room in San Francisco’s Davies Hall, and will play in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. She has recorded works by Hossein, Tjeknavorian, Hormoz Farhat and Behzad Ranjbaran. 

Shehabi-Yaghmai has sung leading roles with Oakland Lyric and Festival Operas in the East Bay, West Bay Opera and Merola Opera, and Opera Brasov in Romania. She will perform with the New Music Ensemble in San Francisco and Santa Cruz.