Kayhan Kalhor Master Iranian Musician Plays Cultural Ambassador


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In Silent City, a hypnotic work commemorating Halabjah, a Kurdish village annihilated by Saddam Hussein, the kamancheh, an upright four-stringed Persian fiddle, breaks out in a lamenting wail based on a traditional Turkish melody.

“Silent City" is included on a new disc of the same name on the World Village label, which Kayhan Kalhor, a virtuoso kamancheh player, recorded with the young string quartet Brooklyn Rider.

The work opens with a desolate murmuring improvised by the strings, eerily evoking the swirling dust of barren ruins, with a Kurdish melody heralding the rebuilding of the destroyed village. It has a particular resonance for Mr. Kalhor, 45, who was born in Tehran to a family of Kurdish descent. The sound of the kamancheh is “warm and very close to the human voice," he said by phone from Tehran, where he now lives.

He began studying the kamancheh at 7 and playing with Iran's National Orchestra of Radio and Television at 13. He left the country after the Islamic Revolution (when universities were closed for several years) and lived in several Western countries, including Canada, where he studied music composition at Carleton University in Ottawa. His main motivation for leaving Iran was not political, he said; it was to further his musical studies.

Mr. Kalhor met members of Brooklyn Rider in 2000 at Tanglewood, where they took part in the cellist Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project. The quartet's members are Colin Jacobsen and Jonathan Gandelsman, violinists; Nicholas Cords, violist; and Eric Jacobsen, cellist.

Silent City is the result of eight years of learning and experimentation, Mr. Cords said. “We enjoyed each other on first meeting and were fascinated with his world, but at the beginning wouldn't have dreamed of making this recording together."

The beginning of “Silent City" is improvised, a skill that is integral to the Persian classical music tradition, in which performers base their extemporizing on a collection of melodies and motifs known as the Radif. Western classical musicians rarely improvise, but Brooklyn Rider honed its skills with Mr. Kalhor; Mr. Cords and Colin Jacobsen received further instruction while visiting Iran in 2004. “The improvisation feels like an outgrowth of our friendship," Mr. Cords said.

The men of Brooklyn Rider also had to learn how to adapt to playing the quarter tones and modes common in Middle Eastern music.

Mr. Kalhor is well versed in cross-cultural partnerships. His many successful musical collaborations include Ghazal, a duo with the Indian sitarist Shujaat Husain Khan. The sitar and kamancheh work well together, Mr. Kalhor said, largely because of the “affinity of the two cultures" and their many historical connections.

He has also performed with the New York Philharmonic and at the Mostly Mozart Festival. On Oct. 18 he will appear at Carnegie Hall. He said he rarely performed in Iran because of the bureaucracy involved in organizing a concert.

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