Only one kind of instrument, the violin, looked familiar in Monday evening's program at the Corcoran Gallery, and even it produced sounds never imagined by Bach or Beethoven. In a program of Persian classical music, the Western instruments stood out in a large array of exotic plucked strings and percussion: the long-necked tar and setar, the short-necked oud, the santur (which resembles the Appalachian hammered dulcimer), large tambourines and a variety of drums.
The violins, prized for their ability to play microtones, are latecomers in a musical tradition that dates back thousands of years but retains its freshness and vitality. The music performed by the Chakavak Ensemble, under the direction of conductor, composer and tar player Nader Majd and including some of his compositions, had a fine stylistic congruity even though it dated from widely separated eras. Much of the program resembled pieces in the Western concerto tradition, contrasting the large ensemble with a smaller group (e.g., bowed strings vs. plucked strings) or a vocal or instrumental soloist.
The scales, harmonies, melodic patterns and textures are distinctive, timeless and instantly enjoyable to listeners with open minds, perhaps especially enjoyable for those who have developed a taste for Western minimalism.
The middle section of the program was given over entirely to percussion instruments, played with a subtle and complex variety of rhythms and textures. A similar subtlety and complexity distinguished the richly ornamented, often improvisational-sounding work of vocalist Narges Mahmoudshahi.
-- Joseph McLellan