Silk Road Ensemble’s Kayhan Kalhor improvises music with emotional resonance

By Bliss Bowen

Kayhan Kalhor, who divides his time between Iran and California, champions culture’s practical value in a violent world

Kayhan Kalhor, who divides his time between Iran and California, champions culture’s practical value in a violent world

Certain musical instruments evoke the human voice, like the pedal steel or slide guitar, the Indian sarangi — and the kamancheh, also known as the Persian spiked fiddle. In the hands of a master, its deep tones can inspire sympathetic, almost primal emotional responses from listeners.

The kamancheh is the instrumental province of Kayhan Kalhor, a sublime musician and composer who is also adept with the setar (Iranian lute) and Persian violin. Born and raised in Tehran by his Kurdish family, the 54-year-old Kalhor’s lifelong mission to connect cultures through art earned him an Isaac Stern Human Spirit Award last September for his “outstanding contribution to our understanding of humanity through the medium of music.” Next Thursday, he’ll appear with Kurdish tanbur player Ali Akbar Moradi in an improvisational concert at the Skirball Center.

The two globally recognized master musicians have been friends since they were teenagers, when Kalhor was playing violin in a professional orchestra and Moradi was being schooled in the tanbur’s traditional repertoire. Hopefully Thursday’s concert will include their celebratory tune “Showgh (Joyful Anticipation),” from their 2004 album “In the Mirror of the Sky,” alongside pieces from Kalhor’s new release “It’s Still Autumn,” an elegant, culture-bridging collaboration with Netherlands pianist Rembrandt Frerichs’ trio.

Kalhor prefers the spontaneous energy of improvising in duos or groups; besides Moradi, his lengthy list of collaborators includes Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, Brooklyn Rider (with whom he’s been collaborating for 20 years), Ghazal (his duo with Indian sitarist Shujaat Khan), Malian kora maestro Toumani Diabaté, Turkish saz player Erdal Erzincan, and Masters of Persian Music. He brought quiet dignity and an emotional center to Morgan Neville’s 2016 documentary about the Silk Road Ensemble, “The Music of Strangers,” with his personal stories of sacrifice for his music and a transcendent solo performance in Istanbul’s Basilica Cistern (described by Neville as “magical” in an interview with The Argonaut).

The personal detail he divulged in that film was unusual for him, but Kalhor has long championed culture’s practical value in a violent world, and his belief that a vibrant society demands a healthy trinity of politics, economy, and culture; if one stops operating in good faith with the other two, societal rot sets in. Culture outlives politics, as he noted in Neville’s film, and no one remembers who was king when Beethoven was composing his 5th Symphony.

That judicious worldview informs all Kalhor’s work — and also earned him an invitation from the Dallas Morning News last May to write an op-ed about the U.S. and Iran, since he divides his off time between Iran and his Southern California ranch, where he raises Arabian horses. Kalhor was still marveling at his 2017 concert tour in Iran for “ecstatic” young audiences, his first there since 2009, and worrying about hopes dashed by the U.S .withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. Since the Trump administration’s travel ban, he is reportedly spending more time in Iran.

Onstage, a thick shock of silver hair shadows Kalhor’s bent face as he kneels behind the kamancheh, a position that allows him to move more freely with the music while maneuvering the instrument and drawing his bow across its strings. Moradi plies the tanbur with equal intensity, almost as if it were part of his own being. With both, the effect created is one of strangely lyrical communion, which bodes well for Thursday’s concert.

Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Akbar Moradi perform from 8 to 10 p.m. next Thursday (May 16) at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd. Tickets are $25. Call (310) 440-4500 or visit skirball.org.

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