تو دادی مرا فر و فرهنگ و رای … تو باشی به هرنیک و بد رهنمای
“You gave me aura, culture and voice
you are my guidance in good and bad”
When my friend Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi asked me to write a piece about the Shahnameh Millennium Concert, I thought it might be best to interview the composer of “Persian Trilogy,” Behzad Ranjbaran.
The name rang a bell. I knew Behzad from ages ago, when I had met him and his brothers in Washington. They had composed a song titled “sar oumad Zemestoun, shekofteh Baharoun”(Winter has passed, here comes the spring). The melody reminded me of old times when we were student activists. Behzad Ranjbaran has come a long way from being a lover of music at a young age to teaching at the Juilliard School of Music. He is also the recipient of the Rudolf Nissim Award for his violin concerto.
This year, he will be conducting a 75-member symphony orchestra at the7th biennial Conference of the International Society for Iranian Studies to be held in Toronto, Canada.
The 2008 conference is organized by Dr. Mohamad Tavakoli -Targhi of the University of Toronto. It is expected that a large crowd from the US, Canada, Europe and Iran will attend the 4- day conference and the concert which will be held simultaneously.
The Shahnameh (Book of Kings) is an epic of Iranian history. Written between 980 and 1010 by the great Iranian poet Hakim Abolqasim Ferdowsi, the Shahnameh is the tale of kings and commoners, of princes and princesses, of conflicts and battles, peace, love, of tragedy, of heroism, of life and learning. It is the history of urban, sedentary Iran in confrontation with nomadic “Turan,” which stands for Turkic Central Asia, written and told in the most beautiful poetry imaginable. It is the story of Rostam and Sohrab, of Bijan and Manijeh, of Afrasiab, Arash and Siavash, of Zal and Simorgh, and Kaveh Ahangar, a total of 98 long and short tales in all. The Shahnameh is the essence of Iran, the tale of the mingling and intermarriages of ethnic and religious minorities, of fusion for the sake of uniting Iran.
Dr. Dick Davis, Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the Ohio State University, who has done an outstanding job translating the stories of the Shahnameh into English, said the following in an earlier interview when asked about his favorite character:
“Rostam is endlessly fascinating for example – someone who is Iran’s savior but whose parents (and his father’s upbringing outside of civilization, by the Simorgh), are associated with wildness, magic, and the enemies of Iran. Also he’s someone who’s clearly a composite character, a coming together of different traditions from different times and places, and who is yet strongly coherent as a character. And then he’s someone who is so emphatically associated with Zoroastrianism, and yet who in versions of his story not used by Ferdowsi, he is actually an anti-Zoroastrian figure.”
Rostam and Sohrab are father and son, though they have never met; Rostam doesn’t even know he has a son. They meet finally in battle, as enemies, Rostam representing Iran and Sohrab defending Turan. Rostam Pahlavan (Rostam the courageous) inflicts the final blow and kills Sohrab. After seeing the arm band he had given Sohrab’s mother Tahmineh many years ago, he realizes whom he has just stabbed fatally. It is one of the most tragic episodes in the Shahnameh.
Siavash, a Persian prince who symbolizes innocence, is killed by Afrasiab, the king of Turan and avenged by his son, Kai Khosrow. Zal, son of a king, is an albino who is raised in the Alborz Mountains by the magical bird, Simorgh. Bijan and Manijeh are much like Romeo and Juliet. Bijan is a son of Giv, a great warrior of Iran, and Manijeh is the daughter of Afrasiab. They meet and fall in love and end up suffering much because of their love.
Kaveh Ahangar, (the blacksmith) represents the working class who rescues his people from a ruthless ruler, Zahak.
I asked Dr. Ehsan Yarshater, the renowned scholar and editor of the Encyclopaedia Iranica, what he thought of the Shahnameh. He said, “Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh is not only a towering masterpiece of Persian poetry, but also the most important pillar of Iranian national identity. It contains the most engaging rendering of Iranian traditional history with its myths and legends as well as gripping episodes of heroism, warfare, and romance.”
When I asked Mohamad what his idea was behind taking on such an enormous task, he said:
“In my opinion, the Shahnameh is an exemplary text of Iranian cosmopolitanism. In a sense it is a racial representation of heroes of the Shahnameh who are its byproducts. The basic idea is to show the cultural and intellectual diversity of the Iranian diaspora. We want to show that members of the Iranian community are not just consumers but producers of multiculturalism with a long humanist tradition; it is now the time for the Iranian culture to go global.”
The late Borhan Ebneyousef, the author of numerous books on the Shahnameh, writes: “The Shahnameh is our birth certificate, it is our story, and in short, it is our report card.” In the Shahnameh, “ideas, thoughts and people have an active role.”
Finally, Dick Davis sums it up in this most eloquent way:
“The Shahnameh falls broadly into two halves: the first half is the means by which most of the surviving pre-Islamic legends and mythology of Iran have come down to us, and the second is a romanticized history of the last pre-Islamic Persian dynasty, the Sasanians. The poem teems with life and energy, and contains many very vividly realized portraits of heroes and kings, as well as a surprising number of heroic female figures; these extraordinary figures – Zal, Rostam, Seyavash, Esfandyar, Rudabeh, Sudabeh, Manizheh, and many others – have had an unrivalled hold on the Persian imagination over the centuries. But the poem is also an earnestly ethical, even philosophical, work and many themes (e.g. father-son conflict) are treated with great subtlety during its course. The problems Ferdowsi most consistently returns to are those concerning power and authority. What constitutes a just ruler? Why do the unjust seem to flourish? How should a good man governed by an evil ruler act? The poem returns to these themes again and again, and the questions remain largely unresolved at the poem’s end. The never-ending anxiety about such questions, which permeates the whole poem, is I believe one of the chief reasons why the work has continued to resonate as a major aesthetic force within Persian culture.”
According to a press release on the program , “The Shahnamah Millennium Concert on Saturday, August 2, 2008—a 1-night only concert to be held at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall—will be a rare treat for the senses of Persians, literati, music lovers, art lovers, and history lovers alike. This concert will be a fusion of tradition and innovation, done on a grand scale that has never been produced in this format, anywhere in the world before. The Shahnamah Millennium Concert “promises to be the must-see event of the summer.”
The Persian Trilogy CD was released on October 26, 2004 on the Delos recording label, conducted by the London Symphony Orchestra at St. Luke’s by Maestro Falletta. While listening to the music, one is reminded of Gershwin, Wagner and classical Persian music combined.
The 7th biennial ISIS conference is being held at a time when the sky over Iran is cloudy and the country’s horizon looks bleak. Yet hundreds of scholars from around the world will be convening to speak about the many facets of Iranian culture and politics. Many will participate in this conference and the highlights of the event will be the Shahnameh concert, the Persian trilogy and a performance of the art of naghali (traditional Persian story-telling).
Here is my interview with Behzad:
When did you become interested in music?
When we lived in Iran, the late Hassan Shahbaz, the famous journalist and translator was our tenant. He was a well known translator of Western classical music texts into Persian. His son played the accordion. Shahbaz had introduced classical music to Iran. My brothers and I became more interested in music due to his influence. It was in the early 1960’s.
I attended the music conservatory (conservatoire) of Tehran at the age of nine playing the violin. Upon my graduation I came to the United States and attended Indiana University at Bloomington. In the early 1980s, I studied at the Juilliard School of Music. After graduating with a doctorate in music composition I was invited to join the faculty. This means that I have been at Juilliard for 23 years now.
Some of my pieces deal with Persian literature and Iranian history. For example, “Songs of Eternity” for soprano and orchestra on the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which was premiered by Renee Fleming and The Seattle Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz. My violin concerto was in part inspired by Kamancheh (a Persian musical instrument) premiered with Joshua Bell as soloist with the Royal Liverpool philharmonic, also conducted by Gerard Schwarz.
When did you start working on the trilogy and how long have you been working on this piece?
From a young age, I was truly mesmerized by the stories of Shahnameh. I began to write the Trilogy about twenty years ago. It took about eleven years to finish. Although I wrote many other orchestral and chamber pieces in between, the Trilogy has a special place in my heart. The piece called Seemorgh premiered with the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra in California in 1993. The Second piece was the blood of Seyavash, a ballet in seven scenes that was premiered by the Nashville Ballet in 1994. The Last piece, titled Seven Passages, Haft Khan (Haft khan-e Rostam) was first performed by the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra in 2000. Jo Ann Falletta, who premiered Seemorgh and Seven Passages, eventually recorded the whole Trilogy with the London Symphony Orchestra on the Delos label in 2003.
The ballet production was quite attractive with Old Persian costumes and Persian sets. The dancers’ costumes were hand-painted individually on silk, with vibrant colors inspired by 16th-century Persian miniatures. The costumes were original and beautiful. I had given the team of designers, books about Persian art and copies of the Shahnameh in preparation for the ballet. It took almost eighteenth months to write the music and prepare for the production.
I hear you are going to Iran on a trip and you are to meet Morshed Torabi and work together on this program?
I am going to Iran to meet Morshed Torabi and work with him in preparation of the Toronto concert which is the first time a fusion of symphony orchestra and pardeh khani )Persian scene-narrating) and naghali is presented. It is going to be a seventy-five member symphony orchestra with the Toronto symphony and Morshed on stage and eighty minutes of music. Naghali (stories from the Shahnameh told by a dervish recited in a special rhythm) is eleven movements of the Persian trilogy. Each episode is preceded by a short narration while themes of the Haft Khan and Seemorgh are projected on a large screen.
This is the first time such a concert will be performed anywhere in the world. It brings together aspects of traditional Iranian culture with symphonic music inspired by the Shahnameh. It is a fusion between tradition and innovation, between old and new.
What are your recent concerts in the US and in which cities have you had performances?
My most recent piece is a Piano Concerto, which was commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with the fantastic Jean-Yves Thibaudet as the soloist and Robert Spano as the conductor in June 2008. In this piano concerto, I was inspired by Deraz Nay, a musical instrument used in ceremonies in Persepolis. Its sound is also reminiscent of the traditional taziyeh (Persian/Islamic mourning rituals commemorating Imam Husain’s martyrdom). I used the daf, a traditional drum-like instrument, in the all-American orchestra. The Atlanta Symphony purchased a daf, and one of the orchestra’s percussionists practiced it intensively to prepare for the concert.
You work mainly on classical music. How have you combined Iranian classical music with western music?
Classical music is no longer associated with European countries. It has been embraced by many countries including Russia, Latin America, China and Japan. It is widely accepted as a truly international classical music versus national forms of classical music. In my music, I use many Iranian motifs, rhythms and figurations. I also use instrumental colors and characters to emulate Iranian instruments. For example, in “Fountain of Fin” celebrating Bagh-e Fin (a famous garden in Kashan), I use the flute in such way that at times it emulates the sound of the ney (reed).
Written in honor of Amir Kabir, a 19th-century Iranian grand vizier who was murdered in this garden, the music of Bahgh-e Fin premiered in February 2008 in New York. Barge Music commissioned the piece for their 30th anniversary and will perform it in late August in New York.
How much do you think the program in Toronto will be appreciated?
The Iranian Canadian community of Toronto is very much supportive of art and culture. I anticipate that this concert will draw a huge crowd. This concert is an occasion for all Iranians and admirers of Ferdowsi to celebrate the millennium of the completion of the Shahnameh. This is one of the biggest events in the most prestigious concert hall in Toronto. All the credit and honor go to the International Society of Iranian Society and its President- elect, Dr. Mohamad Tavakoli, who initiated this historic concert. I am very impressed by their commitment and vision. We should all be celebrating the millennium of Shahnameh in a grand fashion. The success of the Toronto Concert will undoubtedly be a source of pride for all Shahnameh admirers and the entire diasporic Iranian community. I am hoping that many people will attend and pay their respect to this epic of Iranian history.
Are your students interested in Iranian classical music?
Yes, among my music courses at Juilliard, I also teach a graduate course in world music. As part of this class, I teach Iranian music. I have invited leading Iranian musicians such as Kayhan Kalhor and Kazem Davoudian to perform and give lectures in my classes. My students are very interested.
Have you ever played in Iran?
My string quartet was played as part of a music festival in Niavaran palace in Tehran several years ago. The musicians had come from Armenia. Unfortunately I was not there to hear it.
How have people appreciated your concerts?
I always enjoy meeting people who come to hear my music in concert halls. It is fascinating to hear their comments and their reaction to my work. Last month, I had three concerts in Atlanta, where my piano concerto was performed with great success. They commented on the freshness of its musical language.
It seems to me that the audience and the musicians enjoy listening or playing my music as they find elements of Persian music and culture in my overall musical style and language.
Last March, Seven Passages was performed several times by the Philadelphia Orchestra in their educational concerts. In preparation, thousands of students in Philadelphia learned about the Shahnameh and my music. In the concert, a narrator described the story, while Persian miniatures, depicting scenes of the Shahnameh were projected on a large screen. In fact, the Philadelphia performances were a precursor to the Toronto concert.
What is the message here?
The goal and the message is that the Shahnameh is a literary masterpiece. There is no comparable work ever written before or after. We should take advantage of the millennium of the Shahnameh, sharing it with people around the world. The Toronto concert with its unique mix of music, narration and multimedia could reach out to a larger audience. We are hoping to enrich humanity and send a message that this belongs to the whole world and not just Iran.
I look forward to seeing everyone at the Toronto concert and I also hope that the Persian Trilogy can be performed in Iran someday.