Oakland East Bay Symphony’s ’Notes from Persia’

Reaching across great divides

Before the start of the second half of Friday night’s Oakland East Bay Symphony concert, Music Director and Conductor Michael Morgan stepped to the microphone to comment, “We need to come together face to face, rather than listen to what our governments tell us to think about each other.”

His remarks met with enthusiastic applause and verified the political intent of the program, in case anyone had mistaken it for a purely cultural foray into the work of Persian composers and performers. Or Iranian, if you prefer, a 20th-century name that breaks from the region’s long classical tradition.

Morgan’s efforts pointed out that not only are many Americans of diverse backgrounds unhappy with the war but also, importantly, the arts are not simply entertainment—pleasant escapes one makes to when the day has done; rather they have a place in the well-being of humans, they demark points of entrance between cultures and reveal in their variety the deep cultural ingenuity of the species.

Intermingling Persian musical traditions with works from the western European Romantic/Modernist tradition made for an engaging program: the first half comprised Strauss’ Don Juan and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, while the second half presented traditional and contemporary Persian music.

Pianist Tara Kamangar closed the first half of the program with a spectacularly skillful performance of the Rachmaninoff. Playing one of the more fiendishly difficult pieces in the piano repertory—Rachmaninoff, one of the piano virtuosi of his age, found it daunting, and according to legend slugged down a glass of crème de menthe before performances to facilitate his playing—Kamangar led us through finger-twisting passages, pausing at the 18th variation to thoughtfully and tenderly play its most lyrically beautiful and famous motif.

Mezzo-soprano Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai opened the second half of the program—devoted exclusively to Persian composition—with a series of six well-known folk songs, taken from various regions of Persia, including Afghanistan. Shehabi-Yaghmai has a lovely mezzo voice and an emotional delivery. The songs themselves were poignant, characterized by simplicity of line and the spoken qualities of folk songs. Often the most beautiful lyrics come out of oral tradition:

“My homeland, you are always waiting,
you are a dusty field from all the wars,
your heart is broken for all its loss.”

But they suffered, as many folk songs do, by translation to the orchestral concert form. Arranger David Gardner’s large washes of symphonic color worked in opposition to the voice and the elegance of line.

Loris Tjeknavorian’s suite for the opera Rostam and Sohrab, Op. 8b, closed the concert with a vivid, rhythmically and modally complex composition in a thoroughly exciting performance by the orchestra. The opera is based on a story from the Shahnama, a national epic written by the tenth-century poet Abolqassem Ferdowsi, which tells of the mistaken slaying of the hero Shorab by his warrior father, Rostam, during war.

The suite opens with a brooding line from the cello and bass, punctuated by percussive chords from the piano. The strings move up and down an exotic-sounding scale, joined by brisk violins and violas, the tonal wash filled out by dissonant brass: the whole piece building to a frenetic pitch. A pause is punctuated by orchestral chords, followed by the interjection of woodwinds, tympani and chimes. Harp and percussion rise, blending in an otherworldly sound; middle eastern–sounding woodwinds in sync with the celesta break through to turn the orchestra into a breathing entity.

The piece shifts and gathers, layering rhythms and dynamics, lapsing into the melancholic, wistful and poignant until reaching the final movement, which opens with a martial rhythm. Horns peruse a panorama of sound. A screech of violins adds to the fervor, and the orchestra billows into a heaving, rhythmic storm.

It was truly exciting. Afterward, I asked Tjeknavorian when he was bringing the full opera to the United States. “Oh,” he answered, sweetly, “we need a patron.”

Oakland East Bay Symphony has its next Friday evening performance on April 18, with works by Schoenberg, Brahms and Sierra. For information, visit

—Jaime Robles

Originally published in the Piedmont Post