Persian classical music legend comes to York University

Mohammad Reza Shajarian graced the stage of York University’s Tribute Communities Recital Hall June 7, the day following his sold-out concert at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall.

This living legend of Persian classical music met with an enthusiastic group of fans at a special presentation on campus titled New Instruments, New Sounds, showcasing instruments that he has designed and constructed for contemporary performance of this ancient music genre.

Right: Mohammad Reza Shajarian

Joining Shajarian onstage as co-presenter and translator was his research and development consultant, electronics engineer Shabnam Ataei, as well as members of the Shahnaz Ensemble, who are accompanying the maestro on his current international tour.

“This visit is an honour for the University and an incredible resource for York’s students, world music fans and the Iranian community,” said York University music Professor Rob Simms, who organized the presentation. A multi-instrumentalist with a particular interest in Middle Eastern music, Simms is currently collaborating with Shajarian and Iranian-Canadian musician Amir Koushkani in a book examining Shajarian’s music, along with his significance as a public figure in Iran and as a global representative of Iranian culture.

While Shajarian is known the world over as one of the foremost singers and composers of Persian classical music, his innovative work over the past decades to expand the sonic resources of the traditional Iranian family of string instruments is only now gaining international recognition.

Above: Members of the Shahnaz Ensemble, who are accompanying Shajarian on his tour

New Instruments, New Sounds offered the audience an intimate encounter with a number of Shajarian’s unique and beautiful new instruments, with a discussion of the reasons and inspiration behind their creation, their design, acoustical properties and musical capabilities. The presentation included slides and films as well as live demonstrations by the Shahnaz Ensemble. The musicians have been integral to the development of the instruments, providing feedback to the maestro on performance technique, tone and other qualities of his creations.

Featured instruments included the sorahi, a long-necked, bowed string instrument reminiscent of a violin. It has a skin under the saddle which can be changed in less than two minutes, altering the colour and sound of the instrument. Since he unveiled the original sorahi, Shajarian has produced four variations: the soprano, alto, bass and double-bass.

Above: The ensemble demonstrates the saghar, an addition to the lute family that was developed by Shajarian

The tondar (or bass santour) is a new instrument inspired by the traditional Persian santour, a stringed percussion instrument similar to a dulcimer. Shajarian redesigned the original shape and strings to enhance the sound quality, capacity and precision.

Also demonstrated were the shahbang and shahnavaz – bowed instruments similar to the sorahi, but with a different tonal colour – and the kereshmeh and saghar, Shajarian’s additions to the lute family.

The presentation drew many members of Toronto’s local Iranian community, including many young musicians eager to learn more about the contemporary evolution of their traditional art. At the conclusion of the event, Faculty of Fine Arts Dean Barbara Sellers-Young thanked the visiting artists and presented Shajarian with a gift from York.

Shajarian studied classical singing with the leading masters of traditional Persian music throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the vocal styles of singers from previous generations. He also immersed himself in the study of classical Persian poetry, reanimating and recontextualizing its message to address contemporary issues in his music. He has performed on hundreds of media programs, released over 30 albums and toured extensively over the past two decades. Hailed by the Ministry of Culture as Iran’s Best Classical Vocalist (2000), his honours include UNESCO’s prestigious Picasso Medal (1999), awarded to individuals or groups in recognition of outstanding contribution to the arts or culture, and the UNESCO Mozart Medal (2006) for contribution to world peace through music and the arts. He has also received two Grammy nominations for Best World Music Album.

Shajarian was a faculty member at the University of Tehran until its music department was closed following the 1979 revolution. Known for his humanitarian activities, he is deeply respected in both Iran and the diaspora for his solidarity with the Iranian public. His current accompanying ensemble, Shahnaz, features many young musicians, including women, and he remains a tireless advocate for promoting music in the public sphere of contemporary Iran.