Simply dazzling

Shahnameh Millennium Concert at the Iranian Studies Biennial in Toronto


Simply dazzling
by Ari Siletz

Ferdowsi packs so much literature in his verses that storytellers, singers, percussionists, and painters have traditionally helped unpack his work for us. For a thousand years, this collaboration of the letters and the arts in ghahveh khaneh (coffee house) settings has upgraded and refreshed the Iranian national identity. To commemorate the Shahnameh millennium, the Seventh Biennial Conference of the International Society for Iranian Studies will include a multi-media concert combining Shahnameh storytelling (naghali), Shahnameh-inspired orchestral music, and visual presentations of scenes from the epic.

To bring the concert to this Toronto gathering of hundreds of Iran scholars, program chair Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi invited Shahnameh narrator Morshed Torabi to collaborate with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He then invited concert pianist Ariana Barkeshli, who is also a music researcher, to be the artistic director for the event. Barkeshli recommended Persian Trilogy (Seganeh e Parsi), a suite of Shahnameh-inspired symphonic poems by Juliard composer Behzad Ranjbaran.

Looking back on a previous musical rendition of the Shahnameh, Iranians were so awed by composer Loris Tjeknavorian's Rostam va Sohrab that, despite its Western orchestral format, they welcomed the work into Shahnameh's exclusive tonal tradition. So I asked Barkeshli about her choice of Ranjbaran. In reply, she sent me the London Symphony Orchestra's recording of Persian Trilogy. Ranjbaran's work is mature in the way Sohrab would have been if the Shahnameh story had a happier ending. Confident, strong, wise, compassionate, yet youthful and contemporary. I was ready for drums and clashing daggers, but instead was humbled to find musical substance and emotional depth.

On the other hand, the audience for this multi-media presentation will be a lot tougher than I. It will include the world's largest concentration of experts on Iranian literature, history, art, anthropology, sociology, politics, whatever. Imagine playing a recital where seated in the first row are Bach to Bernstein, Rodrigo to Rohani. Add to these luminaries a Liberace or two who would delight in prima donna wisecracks. Nightmare!

Yet Barkeshli has no pre-performance anxiety. She is proud of her choice. Persian Trilogy is up to the challenge. Seemorgh, The Blood of Seyavash, and Seven Passages, simply dazzle. Maestro JoAnn Falletta apparently agrees. An avid promoter of Ranjbaran's talent, the internationally sought -after conductor will be interpreting Persian Trilogy for the large Toronto audience.

To appreciate Ranjbaran, the listeners will keep in mind the modern work that Iran scholars have done on Shahnameh's symbolic content. For example one Ferdowsi authority, Mahmoud Omidsalar, has done much to elevate the image of the epic from an action-adventure story to a thoughtful riddling of the human psyche. Due to Omidsalar's literary analysis, The Seven Trials of Rostam (Haftkhan) can now be seen as a dream sequence rather than an actual experience of the ordeal. Omidsalar points out that before some of the trials Ferdowsi has Rostam fall asleep. In fact Rostam does not fight the first battle at all. His steed, Raksh, kills the lion while his master sleeps. [See note 3]

There are several wispy, dreamlike demarcations in Seven Passages but the composer may or may not be proposing Omidsalar's Jungian take on the trials. Though he does mention in the CD notes, "I was inspired by the symbolism evident in the story." He adds, "The music reflects my general impression of the story rather than following it faithfully. It is one continuous piece organized tightly around a three-note motif (B, A sharp, B) transforming in the heroic finale to its inversion (B, C, B)." He too seems to view the seven trials as symbolic of the upheaval that occurs in our passage from a state of childhood to maturity. Or to take the symbolism a step further, the inversions that occur as lower levels of consciousness blossom into true awareness.

The audience will also be listening for how well Morshed Torabi melds the tenor of his narration into the texture of Ranjbaran's music. The art of naghali is a one-person show, with an occasional drum or bell. Strings, woodwinds and brass are new to this art form. Torabi will be arriving 10 days prior to the performance for rehearsals. I would pay a lot just to watch the Morshed emerge triumphant after he battles his own Seven Trials in this historic transformation of the art of naghali.

What sort of dialog will Torabi hold with the Persian miniature images projected onto the stage as he paints his own images in words? If Torabi is a pardeh khan (scene narrator) as well as a naghal, he may feel more at home surrounded by burly Qajar-style figures than with classical Persian miniatures. Will the sound tech know to capture the clap of the hand or the slap on the thigh? How does an actor who is used to being his own director share the stage?

Like Rostam's vanishing dragon there will be dangers invisible to the hero that others may have no trouble spotting. Shahnameh recitations are seamless with Persian tonal intervals and rhythmic declarations. Will Torabi's authenticity come through in the context of Western sounds? How much of the intimate coffeehouse warmth will this able naghal salvage in a performance hall that seats over 2500? How will he conjure the aroma of tea and the clink of saucers against glass? If you don't think this is a trial, try telling a campfire story without the dark woods and the embers.

Hopefully this multimedia experiment will raise some good debate. In fact the very idea of having cultural events at the once purely academic gathering of Iran scholars is still novel and controversial. But as our academics begin more and more to appreciate the enormous impact of art on human thought, I believe the disagreements will seem absurd in hindsight.

"The Iranian attitude towards art has come a long way though, hasn't it Ariana?" I told Barkeshli knowing it would bring emotion to her voice. As cousins we both remember how her father, Mehdi Barkeshli, kept repeating the lesson that art, literature and science are tonic, mediant and dominant in the strum of a single chord. The Sorbonne-educated physicist and musicologist worked hard constructing a theoretical foundation for the radif (system) of Persian music. Meanwhile he managed to found the Department of Music and Theatre at the University of Tehran-this accomplishment from a man whose traditional Iranian father once threw his son's violin into the fire.

Such outrageous behaviors of intolerance writ large by the IRI continue to make the Iranian diaspora cringe in embarrassment. Shahnameh Millennium Concert's program chair Tavakoli-Targhi says large-scale policies of intolerance are alien to Iran's cosmopolitan psyche. An accomplished Iran scholar, Tavakoli-Targhi points out insightfully that lovers in the Shahnameh--Bijan-Manijeh, Rostam-Tahmineh, Seyavash-Farangis-are mixed couples. This concert's vision in marrying a beautiful symphonic work to a handsome Shahnameh narration is the sort of vision Ferdowsi may have had for us from a millennium ago.

The Shahnameh Millenial Concert is scheduled for August 2 in Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall.   Visit


Note 1: The conference also includes a film festival. See details here.

Note 2: Here is a brief interview with "Gordafarid," Iran's first woman naghal. Morshed Torabi mentored her.

Note 3 : Shahnameh versions may vary from one coffee table to the next. This gem of a paper by Omidsalar on the haftkhan of Rostam uses the Khaleghi-Motlagh version.


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You are right, simly dazzling.

by Anonymous1 (not verified) on

You are right, simly dazzling.
I can't wait to be at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall on August 2nd.


Very interesting

by Anonymous1234 (not verified) on

Might have to take trip up there.

I would also like to remind everyone that an excellent translation of the Shahnameh was recently accomplished by Professor. Davis: