Deep Sounds from the Middle East at the World Financial Center

by delarue

What’s the likelihood of seeing two octogenarian Armenian music legends in a single week, outside of Armenia, anyway? Thursday night was Souren Baronian at Barbes, Saturday night was Jivan Gasparyan at the World Financial Center, on a transcendent doublebill with Iranian spike fiddle virtuoso and composer Kayhan Kalhor. Only in New York, right?

Though Gasparyan’s show was billed as his farewell American concert – he’s 86 and about to quit touring after more than six decades of it – this was unmistakably a victory lap. Gasparyan was a renowned symphony player and soloist on the duduk – the small but lower-pitched, moody wind instrument, sort of a Middle Eastern counterpart to the bassoon – for decades in his native land, finally finding a global audience with his suite I Will Not Be Sad in This World, from a Brian Eno-produced album in the late 80s. That was the set’s last number, a new arrangement by Kalhor played by the two headliners plus Gasparyan’s grandson (also named Jivan) on clarinet and Behrouz Jamali on dumbek. It made a suitably eclectic, majestic coda to what had been a riveting concert, beginning as a lullaby before growing more bracing, through a brief canon of sorts and then a series of graceful exchanges between the musicians.

Gasparyan and his grandson had taken their time getting to that point. The elder player began with a saturnine, distantly majestic theme, his younger counterpart choosing his spots to add harmonies while a low E drone lingered in the sound system. Was it a harmonium stashed away offstage? An electroacoustic element? A fluke of the ventilation system that the two had decided to incorporate? There was no explanation. From there, the two slowly, methodically and unselfconsciously magically made their way through an unexpectedly lighthearted, gracefully dancing number, a brief prelude of sorts with echoes of the baroque, and a couple of nonchalantly chilling nocturnes, first by Gasparyan senior, then his younger counterpart.

Kalhor’s compositions and improvisations vividly reflect contemporary Iranian experience. Themes of exile and alienation figure heavily in his work, as they did his single, long piece this particular night, which he played in a duo set with Jamali. Kalhor began it solo with plaintive, anguished, sustained lines, then picked up with sudden, seemingly horror-stricken cadenza that signaled a long crescendo. Kalhor – playing his signature custom-made “shah kaman,” a genuinely regal instrument whose range is similar to a cello’s, but with a more biting tone – wove slithery, crystalline glissandos into his alternatively austere and frenetic melodies. The duo took them up and down, galloping and then relenting, never letting go of a pervasive unease, ending sudden and unresolved.

But there was also a very funny interlude when some unexpected harmonies joined Kalhor midway through his set, wafting from behind a curtain to the right of the stage. On the spur of the moment, one of the Gasparyans decided to flex his chops and play along – and much as this drew a lot of quizzical looks from the crowd, whichever guy had his duduk out blended in as seamlessly as anyone could have under the circumstances. For all we know, Kalhor might have planned it as a joke, considering that he didn’t seem the least bit perturbed when the playing started or when it suddenly stopped.