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Old and new, east and west 

Mélo­manie presents Music & Art of Iran’

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4 minute read
Virtuosic tanbour player Kimia Jamshid wowed Mélomanie’s Wilmington audience. (Photo by Gail Obenreder.)

Mélomanie concerts swing easily between works of the baroque and very new music. But their vividly realized February 16 concert had an international twist—all three new works were by living Iranian composers.

Over their 27-year history, this Wilmington ensemble, led by harpsichordist Tracy Richardson and flutist Kimberley Reighley, has recorded three albums and commissioned more than 40 pieces from regional, national, and international composers.

Meet the tanbour

This concert opened with a somewhat sedate interpretation of the familiar Trio Sonata from Musical Offering by J.S. Bach (1685-1750), a work sparked by the composer’s 1747 visit to the court of Frederick the Great (who employed Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emmanuel). The ensemble told the composition’s musical backstory at some length before playing on period instruments.

Less familiar to the Wilmington audience, three exciting Persian-influenced works by living Iranian composers centered the concert. Each featured guest soloist Kimia Jamshid, who played tanbour and cello. Jamshid—a protégé of Keykhosro Pournazi, with whom she studied from age 7 in her native Iran—first gave a brief overview of the three-stringed tanbour (new to me and to many others). Made of mulberry wood, the small, long-necked, lute-like instrument from western Iran dates back to at least the 3rd century A.D. but came to the concert stage only about 40 years ago.

The young virtuoso wowed the audience in two exquisite solo tanbour pieces, beginning with Saroukhani by Sohrab Pournazeri (b.1983). The work opens delicately but soon moves into fleet runs, gaining a mesmeric quality both soothing and exciting. Playing from memory, Jamshid passionately realized the composer’s fusion of old and new. I knew nothing about the instrument and little about the culture that produced it, but her artistry transcended any knowledge gap and deeply (almost hypnotically) immersed listeners into her culture. The work was originally a 25-minute Pournazeri improvisation notated by one of his students. Jamshid herself has transcribed some of his improvised works, though not this one, which she shortened to 10 minutes.

Emotional, eerie, spiky, melodic

After the intermission, Jamshid gave a riveting reading of Avaz-e Jan, a solo cello work by Los Angeles-based composer Shahāb Pāranj (b. 1983). The three-movement work blends Persian rhythms and melodies with classical western structures. Its short first movement opens aggressively, but its stridency gives way to a meditative pizzicato in the second section. The third movement is an exploration of Iranian dance music that moves into beautifully somber chords interspersed with eerie silences and stunning harmonics.

The impetus for this concert program was Reighley’s encounter several years ago with the third Persian work on the program, Fountains of Fin (for flute, violin, and cello) by Behzad Ranjbaran (b. 1955). A teacher at Juilliard, the composer is best-known here for his Flute Concerto, a 2013 Philadelphia Orchestra commission for principal flute Jeffrey Khaner. The performance featured Reighley (modern flute), Christof Richter (violin), and Ismar Gomez on cello.

The Old Town Hall is an excellent venue for chamber music. (Photo by Gail Obenreder.)
The Old Town Hall is an excellent venue for chamber music. (Photo by Gail Obenreder.)

The emotional work (inspired by the beloved Iranian Garden of Fin) opens and closes with haunting melodic writing for the dark low register of the solo flute. Throughout, the piece combines spiky modernism with melodic passages, and it’s filled with tandem duo passages (some excitingly in sevenths) and bravura sections for each instrument that were excellently realized by this tightly knit ensemble.

Music of the courts

The concert closed (as it opened) with an old work—the Allegro movement of the Sonata in B-flat Major by Czech composer Josef Mysliveček (1737-1781), a colleague of the Mozarts (father and son). The work is scored for duo cellos (Gomez and Jamshid) and basso continuo, here Donna Fournier (viola da gamba) and harpsichordist Tracey Richardson.

It was an aural treat to hear the three low strings intertwined in this spritely, graceful work and to see the musicians’ enjoyment in playing it. It was also a pleasure to hear Richardson’s sensitive keyboard, which grounded both this and the opening Bach work.

A lecture was interpolated into the concert: “Persian Music in the Art of Iran,” by noted scholar Sheila R. Canby, curator emerita of the Met’s Islamic Art Department. Canby, an expert on 16th- and 17th-century Iran’s Safavid material culture, illustrated her talk with art that showed how music was integral to the Persian court culture of the time, much as it was in Europe. Canby is an engaging speaker, and her remarks were aptly connected to the Iranian music, but the talk would have been better placed prior to the concert.

Wilmington’s Old Town Hall (built in 1798) has been recently (and beautifully) restored. Its soaring ceilings, plaster walls, and wooden floors make it an excellent locale for chamber music, something now being discovered by ensembles like Mélomanie, who have made it their home venue.

What, When, Where

Music & Art of Iran. J.S. Bach, Trio Sonata in C minor (from Musical Offering); Sohrab Pournazeri, Saroukhani; Shahāb Pāranj, Avaz-e Jan (for solo cello); Behzad Ranjbaran, Fountains of Fin; Josef Mysliveček, Allegro from Sonata in B-flat Major. Tracy Richardson, harpsichord; Kimberly Reighley, flutes; Christof Richter, violins; Donna Fournier, viola da gamba/baroque cello; Ismar Gomes, cellos; Kimia Jamshid, tanbour and cello. Guest speaker Sheila R. Canby, Curator Emerita, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mélomanie. February 16, 2020 at Old Town Hall of the Delaware Historical Society, 504 N. Market St., Wilmington, DE. (302) 287-7467 or melomanie.org.

Old Town Hall (entered through the Delaware History Museum) is an ADA-compliant and accessible venue. Parking is on Market Street or in nearby garages.

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