Iran Symphony Conductor Faces Challenges

The Associated Press
Monday, August 21, 2006; 1:37 PM

OSNABRUECK, Germany -- Conducting the Tehran Symphony Orchestra requires some adjustments. Money is scarce. The female musicians wear headscarves. An old favorite such as Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 could mean criticism from conservative quarters.

Nader Mashayekhi, the orchestra's new leader, takes it all in stride. In fact, he took the job leading the 80-member ensemble in the Iranian capital "because it's impossible."

"It's a good life when you are trying to get things started that are impossible," he said. "Such as the Tehran Symphony Orchestra playing Frank Zappa."

But that is exactly what he did Sunday, leading the orchestra in Tchaikovsky's Overture to "Romeo and Juliet" and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony _ with American rock musician Zappa's brief "Dog Breath Variations" slipped in between.

The orchestra also played contemporary Iranian music, by composer Hassan Riahi and by Mashayekhi himself, with soloist Harir Shariatzadeh drawing loud and prolonged applause for her virtuoso performance on the daf, a traditional Persian drum.

When it finished, the orchestra won a standing ovation from 1,400 listeners at the Orient Festival in Osnabrueck as they launched a weeklong visit that has been embraced by the German and Iranian governments as an exercise in cultural diplomacy. On Saturday, a smaller version of the orchestra, the Tehran Sinfonietta, plays in Neuhardenberg outside Berlin, and on Sunday at the Berlin State Opera.

Mashayekhi, a 48-year-old with an easy manner and a mop top, became chief conductor in April, returning to his homeland after working for years as a conductor and composer in Vienna.

His predecessor, Ali Rahbari, was criticized in the conservative press for giving Beethoven's Ninth its first performances since the 1979 revolution that brought fundamentalist clerics to power. The work was played by leftist and secular groups during the early days of the revolution, and shunned by Islamists who eventually won.

Western music of all types has an uncertain status under the Islamic government.

It was officially banned in October by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but state-run radio and television still broadcast it. Classical music can be heard accompanying Iranian TV and radio programs, and Iranian television recorded Sunday's concert in Osnabrueck.

Still, Mashayekhi sometimes sees a need to tread softly. For instance, if the orchestra does Mahler's song cycle "Kindertotenlieder," it would be the version with a baritone, not a mezzo-soprano. "Certain people might not like a woman singing in front of an audience including men," he said.

The orchestra is funded by Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, although the musicians have been earning as little as the equivalent of $100 per month. Mashayekhi says he's won an understanding to get it raised to around $360 as a minimum.

Iranian officials say the orchestra demonstrates their country's commitment to culture and tolerance. Homayoun Hemmati, the cultural counselor at the Iranian embassy in Berlin, said government officials "believe in moralistic arts, spiritual arts, I mean a kind of art that can improve and develop spiritual values among people."

"So there is no surprise if our officials support financially and spiritually this kind of musical program," he said. "Of course, in my country, like any other country, there are attacks, some resistances, before some social changes, but the prevalent and popular tendency is that Islam is not an enemy to art."

Mashayekhi says the orchestra has multiple missions _ to present the classical repertoire, to promote Iranian composers working in Western forms and to present traditional Iranian music.

Formed in the 1940s, it flourished in the 1960s and early 1970s under the monarchy and played with top artists such as violinist Yehudi Menuhin and Isaac Stern and conductor Zubin Mehta, according to a short history of the orchestra by Azadeh Shamhirnuri of Iran's CHN Cultural Heritage News Agency. After the revolution, many musicians emigrated but 10 players kept the orchestra going. By the 1990s, Iranian conductors overseas were returning to make guest appearances.

Musicians now study at two conservatories _ one for men, one for women.

Violist Laya Etemadi, 27, started with violin "because my father loved it and said, you must play the violin." She later switched to viola and now teaches at the conservatory.

Violinist Aida Nostrat, 23, took up the instrument even though her parents warned it was difficult. "I insisted on playing violin," she said.

Muhammad Hussain Ahmadi, general director of the music and poetry office at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance who accompanied the orchestra, said the government places no restrictions on which Western composers can be performed.

Mashayekhi remains an optimist despite the challenges. "You shouldn't let yourself be intimidated, because there's always a way, just don't react emotionally," he said.

"I have told the orchestra there is always a way and we will find it."


Associated Press Writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Associated Press