Sahba Motallebi hit a sharp staccato chord on her Iranian setar lute. Then she paused, Then she hit another one. Then another pause, then another stilletto swipe. Then she lit into a seemingly endless flurry of righthand chord-chopping that made Dick Dale’s pick-melting intensity seem wimpy by comparison. A series of minutely nuanced harmonics, meticulously precise pull-offs and hammer-ons followed that. The crowd was silent, completely mesmerized. There is no rock guitarist, no oud player, possibly no musician anywhere in the world with such subtle yet fearsome chops on a fretted instrument.
That was the just intro to the fiery, ecstatically crescendoing birth narrative by the Teheran-born virtuoso at her sold-out New York debut at Symphony Space Friday night. She reprised that opening theme as a lively, peek-a-boo shout-out to her two young daughters at the end of roughly ninety minutes onstage, a duo set with another Iranian expat woman, percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand. It’s impossible to imagine a more exhilarating, transcendent performance by another artist in this city this year. Back in the 90s in her native Iran, Motallebi generated a controversy that wouldn’t exist here by winning the Iranian setar showdown three years in a row – as a woman. Beyond sheer adrenaline, this was a raised middle finger at the Islamofascists who won’t let women perform unaccompanied by a man.
The set was a suite, more or less, the duo shifting dynamically through suspenseful, starlit intros to fiery peaks and then back down to spacious resonance with hardly any interrruption. Other than a coy, B.B. King-style “if you like what you hear, we might play some more,” Motallebi barely talked to the crowd. She didn’t need to. On record, her compositions are ornate and meticulously, lushly orchestrated. Yet these more spare arrangements maintained that vast, epic sweep and majesty.
Motallebi is not shy about showing off her extended technique, yet made it part and parcel of the music without being ostentatious about it. Slowly sirening glissandos, hushed harmonic pings and whispers, and seemingly every microtone she could evince from the strings contrasted with her tireless tremolo-picking attack, every bit the more breathtaking for her precise command of it, a stunning combination of power and control.
Throughout the set, Motallebi juxtaposed pensively crescendoing improvisations with her originals, running the gamut of the emotional spectrum. An ecstatically edgy anthem celebrated Nowooz, the Persian new year. The woundedly apprehensive Chaharmezrab e Esfahan built to a guardedly triumphant coda, a salute to Mottallebi’s fellow female musicians from across the centuries. Meanwhile, Farahmand employed both tombak (goblet drum) and daf (frame drum), shifting with what appeared to be effortless good cheer through some tricky time signatures more common to Levantine or Indian music than the centuries-old Persian tradition. Much as the two’s performance was steeped in ages-old gusheh riffs and dastgah modes, these women left no question about their commitment to take this music into the 21st century and make it their own. There will be a “best New York concerts” page here at the end of the year and this one will be high on the list.