Friday, July 1, 2011
Volume 18, Number 7
Good and Evil with Behzad Ranjbaran
Mythologies / Phillip George
Chronicle of May 2011
Illustration / Behzad Ranjbaran
Harriet March Page
Patti Noel Deuter
Lisa Scola Prosek
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Behzad Ranjbaran is an Iranian-American composer who teaches at the Julliard School of Music in New York. I caught up with him at the Four Points Sheraton on May 1, 2011, just before a performance of his Mithra, with the Marin Symphony.
ALBURGER: Perhaps you can tell us about Mithra.
RANJBARAN: Tonight's concert features Mithra, which I wrote last year.
ALBURGER: How did you get connected with the Magnum Opus Project?
RANJBARAN: I received a call from Meet the Composer that I had been award one of the grants from Kathryn Gould.
ALBURGER: Just out of the blue.
RANJBARAN: It was a very generous gesture towards promoting new music. I was very happy to accept the offer, which involved performances with three orchestras.
ALBURGER: Oakland as well.
RANJBARAN: And Santa Rosa, which was where the premiere occurred last year. I think this should be a model for the rest of the country: to initiate large works, not just for one orchestra, but several at once. I'm very happy that a number of performances are happening here. Next year the Philadelphia Orchestra is going to bring my Saratoga for the centennial of the San Francisco Symphony.
ALBURGER: Assuming the Philadelphia Orchestra's still in existence, what with the bankruptcy.
RANJBARAN: That is just a phase to reorganize their finances. I assume that will be short term. And also, this summer, Cabrillo Festival will bring my Piano Concerto here. I am discovering the beauty of this area, and seeing what a fertile ground it is for music and art. People love to nurture quality, whether it is music or art or wine. This area reminds me of the city of Shiraz, which has a similar climate. It is famous for, obviously, Shiraz wine, which dates back several thousand years. It was there that the concept of paradise was developed! The San Francisco Bay Area also reminds me of the wine and the paradise! I feel very much at home.
ALBURGER: Are you from Shiraz?
RANJBARAN: I was born in Tehran, but I went to Shiraz in my younger years. I wrote a chamber piece, that is becoming popular, called "Shiraz" Piano Trio.
ALBURGER: Mithraism seems to offer a spin on paradise, too.
RANJBARAN: It does. It is one of the early believe systems, and the more I read, the more fascinated I became. My connection to Mithraism is very personal. In Iran, "mithra" and "mihr" are very interchangeable. "Mihr" is the aspect of Mithraism that represents "love," "affection," and "obligation." When men and women marry, the obligation is called "mihr." If you have affection for someone, this requires obligation. It's a beautiful tradition. And the seventh month of the Iranian calendar is called "mihr," and my older brother was born in that month. Mithraism is a fascinating belief system that was very popular from India all the way to England for an extended period of time, until Christianity took over. The idea of resurrection, the concept of drinking wine and eating bread.
ALBURGER: That good Shiraz wine!
RANJBARAN: So, a lot of these traditions influenced Christianity -- although the Roman concept of Mithraism was very different from the Persian origins of the religion. And Mithrasism was never unified the way Islam or Christianity was. But it influenced Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- a common heritage for all these cultures, all these religions. That, to me, is a message of universality: that we are all connected; that we are all one.
ALBURGER: How does this work out in the music?
RANJBARAN: I tried to explore three aspects of Mithra in the piece, as three sections: interrelated and connected. A continuous piece of music. The first part is very meditative. It features the solo flute, inspired by the Persian ney. I always felt that the bamboo flute is the most universal instrument around the world. From thousands of years ago, it was natural to express one's feeling through the bamboo flute.
ALBURGER: Performed on a metal flute! What kind of accompaniment? Drone?
RANJBARAN: Harp, which, in ancient times, was the instrument that accompanied reciting poets.
ALBURGER: You're buying into ancient music traditions. What about more contemporary Persian influences?
RANJBARAN: All the melodic characters, rhythms, and improvisatory features are inspired by Iranian models, although I never use traditional Persian melodies -- rather more subtle allusions, rather than imitation.
ALBURGER: What about the second section?
RANJBARAN: More aggressive and rhythmic, representing the battle of Mithra in overcoming evil. We have that eternal conflict. Mithra represents the goodness in humans.
ALBURGER: What's the bad side in Mithraism?
RANJBARAN: Mithra overall is all good.
ALBURGER: But is there a personification of evil?
RANJBARAN: We call it "Satan."
ALBURGER: Not a different name?
ALBURGER: How about that? So close!
RANJBARAN: So the second section is energetic, with rhythmic drive. It is not a battle, but it is grand and vast. It is tense, but never reaches a finale.
ALBURGER: Well, you have another section to go.
RANJBARAN: Two numbers are important in Mithraism: "4" and "7." At the end of this middle section, we hear four strokes, and then seven.
ALBURGER: Both numbers are important in Western traditions, too.
RANJBARAN: Absolutely. Including the seventh month, when my brother was born! And the final second represents "Love." And it is soft and full of lyricism. A picture of how we hope the world will be someday!
The Veterans Auditorium concessions area was bespangled with various late-60's rock memoribilia, and young people were playing chamber music of W.A. Mozart and Peter Tchaikovsky before the concert, so it was a little hard in this context to see where contemporary art music would fit into the mix. Still the Marin Symphony, under Music Director Alasdair Neale made a game effort on behalf of a relatively new work, on May 1, in their showcasing of Iranian-American composer Behzad Ranjbanan's Mithra (2009).
The c. 15-minute piece, inspired by an early Persian deity, attempts to meld Eastern and Western musical and religious sensibilities into a universal one, and does a pretty good job of it, in three interconnected sections. If the trappings of the opening flute-harp-and-brass music are inspired by Middle-Eastern ensemble practices, the execution is definitely East-Coast Academic American, in a post-romantic language that emphasizes orchestral color and common-practice modernism over any direct allusions to the forthrightness of folk music or the microtonality of the Dastgah modes.
The second section, animated and energetic, alludes to the chaos of battle, and is contrapuntal enough to definitely distance itself from the old American saw of "it's got a good beat, and you can dance to it." The most literal joints in the music are the hammerstrokes of four and seven impulses which usher in the beautiful final section. This is music of rapture and transport, and the orchestra gave the chorale-like East-West apotheosis its due, in solemn, sensual string lines that soared to spiritual heights.
Soaring as well was Zuill Baily's performance of the Antonin Dvorak Cello Concerto. The soloist seemed to personify values of the concession pre-show: here was a young virtuoso playing with all the visceral panache of a rock star -- head bobbing, face-making, and a thoroughly convincing and exciting rendition throughout. The violoncello, perhaps even more than the piano or violin, is well nigh a perfect solo vehicle when the soloist's music is memorized. Rather than the profile of the side view, the performer faces straight out, caressing and gesticulating over the voluptuous lines.
The Symphony No. 1 of Johannes Brahms wrapped up the session, in a workmanlike performance that in part captured the innovation and power of how this music must have been perceived in its premiere. But that was 135 years ago (1876), when presented by a conductor who clearly had confidence in the contemporary, rather than falling back on a program of mostly-older music.
Spring for Music, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in Igor Stravinsky’s Concerto in D , string orchestra arrangements (by Richard Tognetti) of Bela Bartok' folksong settings, and Maria Schneider's Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories (2008, a setting of poems by a revered Brazilian poet translated into English by the poet Mark Strand), the latter conducted by the composer, with Dawn Upshaw. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "The harmonic writing is piercing and precise; the mood ambiguous, at once pensive and restless. The vocal writing deftly blends quasi-conversational phrases with soaring lyricism. . . . The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra often plays without a conductor, as it did here in the Stravinsky" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 5/15/11].
Spring for Music: The Evolution of the Symphony, in Anton Webern's Symphony and Igor Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments, with Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "[T]he subject of the Montreal program was not really the evolution of the symphony as a genre. Instead it focused on how the word 'symphony' has implied different things over time. In its Greek and Latin origins the word means 'sounding together.' And this program presented various works that explore how sounds combine. . . . Webern’s Symphony (Op. 21), completed in 1928, is like a distillation of the 19th-century symphony pared down to an aphoristic, nine-minute 12-tone piece. Mr. Nagano and the orchestra gave an austerely beautiful account of this seldom-heard score. The intriguing title of Stravinsky’s 10-minute Symphonies of Wind Instruments, music that combines evocations of earthy Russian folk song with funereal chorales, also implies that the composer’s imagination was inspired by the various ways the sounds of woodwind instruments combine" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 5/15/11].
Fabio Luisi, conducts The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, in Berg's "Lulu" Suite. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "That Mr. Luisi was fully up to this demanding 30-minute work was no surprise to anyone who heard him conduct the complete Lulu at the Met last May, substituting for Mr. Levine. On that occasion Mr. Luisi drew a rhapsodic, uncommonly lithe performance of this daunting score from the Met Orchestra. Berg assembled the “Lulu” Suite in 1934, the year before he died. Not having finished the third and final act of the opera, he was convinced he would never see a production, since the Nazis had come to power and had deemed his atonal music degenerate. So he drew five excerpts from the score, mostly orchestral music, with one central movement, Lulu’s Song, featuring soprano. On Sunday the Met musicians played the Berg with lush sound, impressive clarity and urgency. [Natalie] Dessay . . . brought her luminous, agile and expressive voice to the middle movement, a self-defining moment for Lulu, a shameless femme fatale who blithely goes through a series of smitten men. Here Lulu explains that she has never tried to appear anything other than what men take her to be. Ms. Dessay was riveting. Among other delights, this program offered an exploration of vocalise: wordless music for a voice singing “ah” sounds. Ms. Dessay sang three such pieces, with Rachmaninoff’s hauntingly lyrical Vocalise the best known. Ravel’s Spanish-inflected, seldom-heard Vocalise-Étude en Forme de Habanera was ideal for Ms. Dessay, whose light yet penetrating voice sent the wordless vocal lines soaring. A novelty was the Andante movement from Glière’s Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra (1943), a piece I did not even know about. Ms. Dessay brought such lovely nuances and intensity to her singing that actual words would have seemed superfluous" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 5/15/11].
Bay Area Stage presents Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar. Vallejo, CA.
Revival of Erling Wold's Queer. Fort Mason Center, San Francisco, CA. Through May 29.
Thomas Zehetmair in Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s two Sonatas for Solo Violin (1927). Frick Collection, New York, NY. "Zehetmair . . . gave the premieres of these youthful works in 1987, nearly a quarter century after the composer’s death, and he has returned to them often: the Sonata No. 2 was a highlight of his New York recital debut, also at the Frick, in 1989. These are vehement, emotional essays, etched in Bachian rhythms (particularly in their closing fugues) and angular, leaping themes. Each has passages that are meant to sound harsh, offset by moments of warmth and passion. These are pieces that let Mr. Zehetmair play to his strengths: he is as adept at producing a gritty sound as he is a rounded one and often seems more attracted to acerbity than to sweetness. Mostly, he is drawn to drama, and these Hartmann scores offer plenty" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 5/23/11].
Ana Milosavljevic and Todd Reynolds. The Stone, New York, NY. "For the final two weeks of May the programming at the Stone has been in the hands of Philip Blackburn, the director of the enterprising, polyglot record label Innova. Mr. Blackburn’s idea was to present 24 one-hour concerts by musicians who record for Innova, and . . . he offered, as hours 13 and 14, what he called 'the fiddler’s hoedown from hell': back-to-back recitals by Ana Milosavljevic and Todd Reynolds, violinists for whom amplification and sound processing are integral to music-making. Ms. Milosavljevic’s new album, Reflections, is devoted to works by female composers, as was her recital, though the only overlap was a pair of her own works. She began with an electronically unadorned score, Missy Mazzoli’s meditative Dissolve, O My Heart, composed as a companion piece to the Bach Chaconne and sharing some of its rhythmic impulses. Two pieces by Eve Beglarian set the violin against electronic tracks. In Kaimos the computer sounds are distant and eerie, and if the slow, warm-toned violin line at first sounded merely incidental, it gradually wrested your attention. Ms. Beglarian’s I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long is more assertive: its violin line begins with outgoing bursts and becomes increasingly contrapuntal, thanks to a touch of digital delay. Ms. Milosavljevic’s own agreeably folk-tinged music draws on traditional Serbian and Macedonian themes. In Untitled she uses varied bowing techniques to turn a graceful theme into a showpiece, and in Reflections, in which she was accompanied by the pianist Vicky Chow, a bittersweet theme blossoms into inventive solos for both instruments. Her playing was at its hottest in Zajdi, Zajdi, which she played on the Red Viper, an electric violin with a fretted fingerboard that appears to have encouraged her to borrow timbres and techniques from the rock guitarists’ lexicon. At the late show Mr. Reynolds played a kaleidoscopic set devoted mostly to works from Outerborough, his new double album. Mr. Reynolds’s mastery of electronic processing lets him make the business of creating and regulating sound loops and triggering computer tracks while also adding layers of counterpoint look easier than it is. Those techniques drive Phil Kline’s Needle Pulling Fred, Mr. Reynolds’s opening piece and, in different ways, The End of an Orange, Paula Matthusen’s complicated essay in digital deconstruction and reconstitution. Mr. Reynolds’s set included a few multimedia pieces. David T. Little’s and the sky was still there, an affecting meditation on a female soldier’s personal clash with the military’s former 'don’t ask, don’t tell' policy on homosexuality, has video by Luke DuBois. And Michael Lowenstern’s Crossroads weaves violin improvisations (with a vaguely country-fiddle flavor) and electronic timbres around Robert Johnson’s original recording of that song. Mr. Reynolds had a short break during his own frenetic Centrifuge, which was played by the Lemur GuitarBot, an outlandish robotic guitar. And he offered a bit of old-fashioned, straightforward violin playing too, in Michael Gordon’s rhythmically vital Tree-Oh, where he was joined by the violinists Caleb Burhans and Courtney Orlando" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 5/27/11].
World Nomads Morocco Festival: Marouan Benabdallah. Zankel Hall, New York, NY. "From the demanding program he played, with nearly two hours of virtuoso works from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he seemed determined to make a strong impression. He did. If Mr. Benabdallah did not possess the superabundant technical skills that allow a pianist to toss off a finger-twister like Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso with the effortlessness of an ideal performance, he played it, and other challenging fare, with resourceful pianism, lyrical instincts and thoughtfulness. . . . As a nod to the festival, Mr. Benabdallah, born to a Moroccan father and a Hungarian mother, played two short works from the 1990s by a Moroccan composer, Nabil Benabdeljalil: Nocturne and Song Without Words, conservative yet charming pieces that combine Chopinesque lyricism with bits of North African harmonies. On his Web site Mr. Benabdallah describes himself as an “heir to the great Hungarian musical tradition.” His mother, a musician, was his first teacher, and he moved to Budapest at 13 to pursue his musical studies. He devoted the first half of his recital to Rachmaninoff’s seldom-heard, 40-minute Piano Sonata No. 1 in D minor. Rachmaninoff wrote the piece in 1907, a productive period that also produced his Third Piano Concerto and Second Symphony. In a letter to a friend, quoted in the program notes, Rachmaninoff described the First Sonata as 'wild and interminable,' so long and difficult that 'nobody will ever play it.' Not many pianists do. From start to finish this is an intriguing but baffling sonata. The first movement begins tentatively, with hints of a rhythmic figure in the piano’s low register and a fleeting chorale. Once the main section of the movement takes off, the music becomes a nonstop rhapsodic whirlwind. Passages here and there are beguiling and inventive. But there is little sense of structure or even a coherent musical narrative. The same problems hold true for the ruminative slow movement and the crazed, march-mad finale. Still, I was touched by Mr. Benabdallah’s involvement with the piece. He played with rich colorings and flair, and brought tenderness to the lyrical musings and vigor to the bursts of chords and dizzying passagework. How he managed to memorize music that seems such a succession of arbitrary ideas is beyond me. After intermission he played works by Ravel (selections from Miroirs), Debussy (La Soirée Dans Grenade) and Albéniz (two movements from the Suite Espagnole). In comparison with the Rachmaninoff sonata, even the most elusively Impressionist passages of these pieces sounded utterly lucid. Mr. Benabdallah ended with his own splashy arrangement of Saint-Saëns’s 'Africa' Fantasy, originally for piano and orchestra. As an encore he offered four short, punchy, harmonically brittle pieces from Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, and played them brilliantly, like a confident inheritor of the Hungarian heritage" [Anthony Tommasin, The New York Times, 5/27/11].
Claire Martin and Richard Rodney Bennett’s Irving Berlin show, A Couple of Swells. Oak Room Algonquin Hotel, New York, NY. "Ms. Martin is a complicated agglomeration of styles. Her smoky, sensual voice echoes Cleo Laine, another British singer who, even in moments of turmoil, maintains a certain loftiness. If Ms. Martin’s scat improvisations were mostly embellishments applied to the ends of phrases, at their most developed (during a performance of Cheek to Cheek) they suggested a singer who has studied Anita O’Day. In other words, Ms. Martin swings moderately. If Mr. Bennett were a less-polite accompanist, she might venture more deeply into improvisation. Mr. Bennett, who specializes in suave pianistic chitchat, supported Ms. Martin with sophisticated noodlings that kept the mood airy and light. He also joined her for several duets . . . and took some raspy solo vocals" [Stephen Holden, The New York Times, 6/1/11].
Innova presents Zeitgist and Prism. The Stone, New York, NY. "[The] space, operated by . . . John Zorn, hosted the final evening of a two-week series produced by Innova, a hardy independent record label established in 1982 by the American Composers Forum in St. Paul. The program included two distinctive quartets that record for Innova: Zeitgeist, a mixed group from the Twin Cities, and the Prism Quartet, a saxophone ensemble based in New York and Philadelphia. Zeitgeist, formed in 1977, is as much an ideal and model as it is a quartet; with none of its founding members remaining, it has maintained an unusual but flexible mix of piano and woodwinds and two percussionists. Well traveled and widely respected, Zeitgeist has concentrated much of its work in Minnesota, where it provides commissions to local composers, offers regular concerts and operates its own performance space, Studio Z. Starting with Lucky Dreams, a bubbly curtain raiser by Anthony Gatto, Zeitgeist offered four pieces drawn from three of its five Innova CDs. Not surprisingly the music reveled in rhythm and texture. Ivo Medek’s Into the Same River, a trio, pitted Pat O’Keefe’s sonorous bass clarinet against a litany of scrapes, thumps and growls produced jointly by the pianist Shannon Wettstein and the percussionist Heather Barringer, mostly inside the piano’s casing. Unorthodox techniques and evocative effects also came into play in the visceral poetry of Eleanor Hovda’s If Tigers Were Clouds ... Then Reverberating, They Would Create All Songs and in Andrew Rindfleish’s sublimely penumbral Night Singing. Here too was a reminder of why we attend concerts: no CD, however well recorded, could adequately capture the fascination of watching the percussionist Patti Cudd’s loose, liquid rolls on vibraphone paired with Ms. Barringer’s firm, rigorous marimba arpeggios. The Prism [Saxophone] Quartet . . . focused on music from a newly released Innova CD, Dedication. Initially envisioned as a collection of 20 one-minute pieces to mark the group’s 20th anniversary in 2004, the project overflowed its boundaries: the CD offers 25 pieces by 23 composers. The concert, around an hour long, included 24 works, mostly complete. Given the intended format, most of the pieces were clever bagatelles based on a single notion: rhythmic intricacy, smooth blend, extended vocabulary and so on. Still, you were repeatedly surprised by just how much personality could be expressed in a few deft strokes, through the lush harmonies of Greg Osby’s “Prism #1 (Refraction)”; the 24-tone giddiness of Frank J. Oteri’s Fair and Balanced; the crabby grandeur of Tim Berne’s Brokelyn; and the jazzy swagger of James Primosch’s Straight Up, to name just four examples from a consistently engaging program" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 6/1/11].
Harrison Birtwistle. Night's Black Bird. The Shadow of Night. The Cry of Anubis. Owen Slade, tuba player; Hallé Orchestra, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth. NMC. "No one does deep, dark, elemental brooding quite as profoundly and convincingly as Harrison Birtwistle, the imposing éminence grise of British modernist composers. This most welcome new disc includes three recent examples of his magnificent gloom. In The Shadow of Night, the album’s centerpiece, Mr. Birtwistle reaches across the ages to find common cause with artistic lamentations: Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Melencolia I and John Dowland’s song In Darkness Let Me Dwell. As if in a disturbing dream, the stark, haunting beauty of Mr. Birtwistle’s inspirations saturates this almost 30-minute work, introduced by Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall in 2002 and performed by them at Carnegie Hall soon afterward. The music is a gripping procession of half-lighted swirls, plaintive melodic gestures and stark, violent outbursts; light emerges but fleetingly, penetrating now and again through a dense, near-motionless ooze of moaning strings, growling brass and agitated percussion. Night’s Black Bird, commissioned for the Cleveland Orchestra and Franz Welser-Möst to play at the 2004 Lucerne Festival, is meant as a companion piece to The Shadow of Night: a 14-minute distillation of its vocabulary and mood, its title derived from Dowland’s Flow, My Tears. Flecked intermittently with woodwind bird song, the piece is clearer and lighter than its predecessor but hardly less mysterious. The last piece on the CD, The Cry of Anubis, is one of Mr. Birtwistle’s few concertante works. An eruptive creation from 1994, the work casts a tuba soloist -- here Owen Slade -- as the jackal-headed Egyptian god of the title, who had figured prominently in Mr. Birtwistle’s opera The Second Mrs. Kong. Here, and throughout this invaluable disc, the conductor Ryan Wigglesworth and the Hallé Orchestra do honor to Mr. Birtwistle’s craggy eloquence" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 5/25/11].