In her sold-out New York debut last night at Symphony Space, Iranian-American singer Bahar Movahed held the audience rapt, taking them on a tour of classical Persian music from the 14th century to the present. Leading a trio with the brilliant tar lute player Ali Samadpour and violinist-percussionist Navid Kandelousi, she began with a warmly bucolic, circular Kurdish song from her acclaimed debut album Goblet of Eternal Light and encored with an intense, stormy original by Samadpour, instruments and vocals joining forces on its incisively rhythmic, swaying, biting melody line that veered closer to the western minor scale than the major.
Movahed’s presence was demure but unaffected. Seated with the instrumentalists throughout the show, she began the first song with her eyes closed as if fused with the music. A little later on, she explained that the medieval blend of Persian music and poetry sought to become “a new language of feeling.” Clearly, she and the band achieved it. In the beginning of the set, she kept a tight focus, matching up with Samadpour’s nonchalantly frenetic tremolo-picking, agile hammer-ons and elegant filigrees. As the show reached a peak with a series of darkly majestic, anthemic Samadpour originals, the two seemed to reverse roles as he took over the music direction. Kandelousi began by tapping out a gracefully dancing, boomy beat on tombak drum, then as the show went on switched to kamancheh fiddle and played pensive, sometimes hauntingly sustained lines, sometimes in tandem with the other musicians (and switched to viola on one early 20th century song for verisimilitude with the original version, which had been played on western orchestral instruments).
Movahed is the rare artist who can bring to life any feeling from across the entire emotional spectrum. For the most part, she worked the more shadowy regions of her lower register, rising with an otherworldly, glimmering microtonal ornamentation as the songs swelled and peaked. She saved her raw power for the end of the show, finally cutting loose on the last number with a plaintive, spine-tingling wail. But pyrotechnics are not her game: nuance is. The high point of the show was a stately dirge, a diptych of sorts with a long tar-and-kamancheh interlude, Movahed finally coming in with a hushed suspense and almost imperceptibly raising the energy from a simmer to a smoldering intensity. Just like western scales, Persian musical modes vary from warm and easygoing to more biting and acidic, and Movahed moved from one to another with ease yet with careful attention to microtonal detail (and Farsi lyrics – she joked with the crowd that since she’s been in the US for a couple of years, and that the crowd was largely Iranian expats, she had to make sure to get the lyrics down perfectly).
As the songs moved from the 19th century forward, rhythms grew more complex, individual composers taking the place of traditional melodies and classical poetry. Movahed acknowledged a 20th century neotraditionalism, and then the fireworks – gentle, subtle ones, but fireworks nonetheless – began as the eerie intervals most traditionally associated with the Middle East made their way into the music. A couple of Samadpour anthems leading up to the close of the show worked variations on crescendoing, ominously descending eight-bar patterns, and it was there that Movahed was able to most hauntingly blend light and shadow. Whether hushed and breathy, poignant and imploring or finally, at the very end of the set, allowing herself an unselfconscious, triumphant smile, she revealed herself as a frontwoman of the highest caliber – a role that she never would have been allowed to take in Iran. Currently pursuing a postdoctorate in dental surgery at the University of California at San Francisco, the multi-talented Movahed (also a strikingly whimsical and wryly amusing caricaturist) seems to be here to stay, at least for the time being. In this case, Iran’s loss is our gain.