By Don Heckman
Poetry has been an essential element in Persian/Iranian culture for eons, a refuge in times of stress, a joy in periods of plenty. In turn, the music of that rich society has been almost inseparably linked to the poetry, producing stunning combinations of lyrical imagery and emotionally dense melody.
Surveying the creative product of a culture this rich, this overflowing with imaginative historical development, would be impossible in a single concert.
But the “Celebration of Rumi” at the Hollywood Bowl Saturday night, curated by the gifted master of the kumancheh, Kayhan Kalhor, made an impressive effort to open the ornate portals into this extraordinary artistic heritage.
The program ranged far and wide, beginning appropriately with a program of mystical Sufi songs performed by vocalist and dotar player Nour-Mohammad Dorpour. The mood he created, solely with his passionately intense singing and hypnotically rhythmic accompaniment on the lute-like dotar, was extraordinary. Undoubtedly it had an even greater impact upon those listeners who understood Farsi. But by any definition, it was a performance that transcended the specifics of language, allowing the spiritual poetry to come to life as sound and rhythm.
The program of the Qaderi Dervishes — a five member ensemble of Sufis from Kurdistan — was a stunning display of trance music. Both musically, via mesmerizing melodic and rhythmic repetition, and visually, via physical movements involving hurling their long hair back and forth, they attempted to invoke the ecstatic state of enlightenment that is one of their essential goals. It was a little difficult to bring off in the clearly secular setting of the Hollywood Bowl, however, for a crowd that became understandably restless halfway through the 30 minute presentation.
The Whirling Dervishes, with their astonishing, feather-light spinning, are always among the most visually compelling elements of Persian music concerts, and this program was no exception. Their offerings were made even more gripping by the versatile accompaniment of the Al-KIndi Ensemble and the stunning vocals of Sheikh Hamza Chakour.
Most of the evening’s second half was devoted to a pair of splendid ensembles. The first featured the beautifully integrated playing of Kalhor’s group, which showcased the astonishingly virtuosic singing of Hamid Reza Nourbakhsh. The second — the marquee act of the program — was Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. Performing a new composition by Kalhor, the Ensemble further secured their justly earned reputation as one of the most convincing interpreters of music from across the globe.
The program also included simultaneous Persian calligraphy, created by artist Ostad Yadollah Kaboli, and projected on video screens. And, perhaps best of all, there were the spoken Rumi poems, expressed in Farsi by Iraj Gorgin and — in the concert’s most enraptured moments — told passionately in English by the superb, Academy Award-nominated (for “House of Sand and Fog”) Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo.