Kayhan Kalhor and Kiya Tabassian Play a Historic Concert at CUNY

About half an hour before their show last night, Kayhan Kalhor and Kiya Tabassian were chilling in the shade of a scaffold just north of 34th Street. Nobody seemed to recognize them. They may not be household names in this city, but they are elesewhere – and they should be

Kalhor is best known as this era’s great virtuoso of the kamancheh, the Iranian stringed instrument (he plays a custom-made model with the range of both a violin and a cello, called the Shah Kaman). He’s also one of the foremost composers of the past couple of decades. Whiile he also plays the setar lute, he’s very rarely played it onstage until recently. In fact, until yesterday evening’s engagement at CUNY’s Elebash Hall, he’d never played a full concert on the instrument in New York. A sold-out crowd gave him and his protege Tabassian a standing ovation before the show began – they knew they’d be witness to history.

Rather than a duel, the two setarists’ ninety or so uninterrupted minutes onstage turned out to be a clinic in how to build something transcendent. Although the show didn’t come across as a conversation between teacher and student, Tabassian’s ideas, in general, were more directly poignant, while Kalhor took his time.

The musicians’ individual styles complemented each other. For most of the show, Tabassian stuck to stinging, often heartbreakingly beautiful riffs which contrasted with rain-washed, lingering chords and deftly interpolated countermelodies: he has an amazing sense of harmony.Yet when he finally cut loose, toward the end of the show, he displayed blazing speed to match that poignancy

Kalhor’s atttack on the strings is more feathery than incisive, but that’s probably a good thing, considering how fast his fingers were flurrying on the strings. Consider: if you tried tremolo-picking a guitar, fingerstyle as these two were doing, your fingers would be a bloody mess in seconds flat.

Throughout the show, the duo exchanged riffs, often echoing each other, other times developing subtle variations on a slowly shifting series of themes. Each player gave the other plenty of room to raise the electricity or shift into more shadowy emotional terrain. Taking a brooding, initial downward theme in an Iranian dastgah mode approximating the western minor scale, the two embellisehd it with a groove that grew to just short of a gallop. They then backed away and for a little while, midway through, they edged into a more resonantly chordal, sunnier tableau.

But that didn’t last, and Tabassian was the first to reintroduce a subtle variation on the plaintive initial theme. Kalhor took a turn on the mic, singing a practically imploring couple of verses in his resonant baritone, at one point putting down his setar and letting Tabassian play the changes. Finally, Kalhor let an enigmatic open chord linger, then looked at Tabassian, as if to say, ‘What if we’re both wrong?” They gently made their way out of that enigma and ended the show with an unexpectedly muted if angst-fueled minimalism.

The Elebash Hall concert series – programmed by Isabel Soffer of Live Sounds – is more or less monthly and features a lot of music like this that you’re unlikely to see anywhere else, watch this space.