East Bay Symphony Celebrates Persian New Year

Joshua Kosman

San Francisco Chronicle
March 17 2008

Michael Morgan and the Oakland East Bay Symphony threw an early New
Year’s party at the Paramount Theatre Friday night. It featured
plenty of music and was blessedly free of the maudlin strains of
"Auld Lang Syne."

That’s because the occasion was Persian New Year, which is actually
due on Wednesday. But Morgan and a fine pair of soloists decided
there was no pressing reason to delay the festivities.

Friday’s longish program, titled "Notes From Persia," was evenly
divided between traditional European repertoire – works by Rachmaninoff
and Richard Strauss occupied the first half – and music drawing either
directly or indirectly on Iranian themes. If the latter works generally
sounded less polished or rewarding than those of the established
masters, they still had the benefit of novelty.

And at least one selection from the second half, a collection of
Persian folk songs orchestrated by Bay Area composer David Garner,
turned out to be a heady and touching revelation. The songs were
assembled by Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai, a local mezzo-soprano whom Morgan
heard singing them at an orchestra Christmas party. She delivered
them with a fetching combination of tenderness and vigor.

They ranged from the alluring simplicity of "Sarzamineh man"
("My Homeland"), a limpid melody with harp accompaniment, to the
vivacious rhythmic lilt of "Shekare Ahoo" ("Deer Hunt"). For "She
Godar" ("Three Mountain Passes"), Shehabi-Yaghmai’s singing twined in
lively counterpoint with the violin lines of concertmaster Dawn Harms,
while a percussion section featuring Iranian instruments kept time.

These songs are part of an ongoing project by Shehabi-Yaghmai and
Garner to translate many Iranian folk melodies into concert form,
the same kind of ethnomusicological project that composers have been
undertaking for a century or more. It will be interesting to hear
what other jewels emerge from their efforts.

For more traditional concert fare, pianist Tara Kamangar was the
soloist in the Piano Concerto No. 2 by the Iranian-born French composer
Aminollah (or Andre) Hossein. Written in 1946, this turned out to be
a buoyant but rather lightweight affair, pursuing one simple musical
idea in each of its three movements and then taking itself modestly
off the stage.

The first movement was most interesting, a brittle jaunt deeply
indebted to Prokofiev but without his gift for thematic development.

Kamangar was a skilled advocate, playing with the same nimble
technique and lustrous phrasing that she had brought in the first
half to Rachmaninoff’s "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini."

There was big orchestral bombast to begin and end the evening,
delivered under Morgan’s firm-handed guidance. Strauss’ "Don Juan"
got things off to a nicely muscular start, and the program concluded
with a suite from Loris Tjeknavorian’s 1965 opera "Rostam and Sohrab."

Tjeknavorian, an ethnic Armenian born and raised in Iran, was here in
2001 to conduct Tigran Chukhadjian’s 1868 opera "Arshak II" at the San
Francisco Opera. His orchestral writing proved somewhat overbearing
except for a beautifully translucent section for solo violin, cello,
horn and harp.