The Persian Trilogy, recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta, conductor.
Songs of Eternity, premiered by Renée Fleming, soprano and the Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz, conductor
Violin Concerto, premiered by Joshua Bell, violin and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Gerard Schwarz, conductor
Iranian-born composer BEHZAD RANJBARAN's work highlights both music's timelessness and timeliness
Behzad Ranjbaran, an Iranian-born composer and music educator, arrived in the U.S. as a teenager more than three decades ago in search of personal and artistic freedom. He has found both but his music remains deeply rooted in the legends and history of his homeland. The musical cross-pollination has yielded cinematic-sounding works like The Persian Trilogy, a Grammy-nominated recording by the London Symphony Orchestra (Delos Records) from 2004 and more recent pieces titled Shiraz and Isfahan, inspired by visits to two ancient Persian cities. Well aware of the hostility between the current governments of the United States and Iran, Ranjbaran sees his role as an artist is, in major part, promoting understanding between cultures.
In addition to his burgeoning career as a composer with a backlog of commissions from a large variety of performers and ensembles, Ranjbaran is a member of the Juilliard School faculty and his enthusiasm for music and life, coupled with his own experiences under a repressive government, make him a most effective teacher.
I know you recently had the U.S. premiere of your string orchestra work, Awakening. What is even more interesting is how the piece originated.
It was really very fascinating the way it all came about. It was commissioned by International Sejong Soloists to be premiered in Korea at a music festival. The piece was on the subject of war and peace - obviously, a major theme in Korea. And it turned out to be that the first performance was in a huge peace festival in the Demilitarized Zone, the DMZ. I was under the impression that the DMZ would be void of life, and it was just so beautiful, filled with scenery and greenery - a place that you could go to for a vacation. So it was a very moving experience to have the performance there. The U.S. premiere took place in Miami with the New World Symphony.
I talked to the audience regarding the piece, and told them we often associate heroic acts and courageous acts with war heroes. In my mind, those who resist rushing to war and stand against it are as courageous and as brave. That was the whole purpose of Awakening. The title comes from the fact that it's the individuals' responsibility -- not governments or institutions, but everyone's responsibility to preserve peace.
You grew up in a country that is in the news a great deal today - Iran. Your identity also plays a huge role in your music.
Certainly, works I write are inspired by my background, my early years. I have a whole collection of history-based works called Persian Trilogy.
The excerpts I have heard are beautiful and filled with drama. I am not familiar with the literature and poetry related to the music, but the feeling of major events, battles and romance permeates the sound, like an epic film score.
Yes, it's all there. From my early years, I used to go to a small village where my father was born. It's up in the mountains. All the locals would talk about were genies and fairies. You have to keep in mind that Iran is the land of legends. The culture goes back several thousand years, and the supernatural legends contain moral lessons transferred from one generation to another.
These legends predate Islam in Persia?
Yes, they go back thousands of years. And most of these stories were collected in the epic poems called Shahnameh: The Persian Book Of Kings, written in the 11th Century by the poet, Ferdowsi. He collected all these stories and turned it into the longest epic poem ever written -- 65,000 couplets. He spent 35 years of his life working on it. From the moment that I entered the Tehran Music Conservatory at age 9, one ambition that I had in life was to capture these stories in music. And I think all along that affected the kind of graphic quality that my music has because the influence was just so strong in early years.
I understand that The Persian Trilogy was highly acclaimed, receiving a Grammy nomination for the recording by the London Symphony Orchestra in 2004. With Iran in the news every day, I am sure interest in this work remains strong.
Yes, I have one project with the Philadelphia Orchestra this season on one of the sections of Persian Trilogy, called "The Seven Passages", the story of the hero being tested in seven trials. I always thought that not only heroes are tested in life but also every ordinary person is tested in life - one that cares for a sick person, one who helps out a person who's in need. Those are unsung heroes. So I'm very excited that the Philadelphia Orchestra has chosen "The Seven Passages" for their family concerts so the students in Philadelphia will learn about the story of "Seven Passages" and how it applies to all of us.
When you were growing up in Iran, that was the era of the Shah. And you left Iran when you were 18 years old.
I came here to study music and also because of the political persecution that was happening. I was in prison for a few months as a political prisoner, at age 16, under the regime of the Shah just for possessing books and expressing ideas. Upon my release, I decided once my studies were finished, I would leave my country. I was banned from leaving but, finally, I was allowed to leave. I know what injustice is and know how difficult it is for people to express their political and social views, as well as artistic ones.
Are there any upcoming projects you wish to mention?
There's a new piece that I'm writing: a piano concerto that is going to be premiered with the Atlanta Symphony -- Robert Spano will be the conductor and Jean-Yves Thibaudet is the pianist. Thibaudet has this tremendous sense of color. It has been a great joy to write that piece, because it's a challenge. Some of the greatest composers have been pianists and, for me, who doesn't play the piano, it's been an area of exploration. In some sections, it's tremendously epic in quality and that's something that comes to me. I have no control over it. It just grows out of my body!