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Shahab Paranj showcases the diversity of his compositions at SFCM

The Sarkesh Percussion ensemble with Shahab Paranj (center) performing a drum of the tombak family
The Sarkesh Percussion ensemble with Shahab Paranj (center) performing a drum of the tombak family
from Shahab Paranj's Web site

Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), Shahab Paranj presented a full program of his recent compositions in a Studio Recital organized by his teacher David Garner. (Paranj has also studied cello with Jennifer Culp, percussion with Jack Van Geem, and piano with Alla Gladysheva.) I first encountered Paranj’s music this past September when the Aleron Trio (violinist Solenn Séguillon, cellist Anne Suda, and pianist Sophie Xuefei Zhang) premiered a piece they had commissioned from him.

That composition was Paranj’ first piano trio, given the subtitle “A Bitter Letter.” Its three movements, Largo, Ostinato, and Presto, were conceived as a gradual accumulation of energy organized around the Taazie, a genre of religious mourning. I continue to believe that no new work ever deserves only a single listening, and I welcomed the prospect of Aleron returning for another performance of this trio.

Last night it was clear that Aleron had become more familiar with the technical matters of executing the score. Thus, while there was a visceral intensity to their premiere performance, there now seemed to be greater breadth in how that intensity was expressed. Of particular interest was the fact that, while the Ostinato was structured around roughly the same Largo tempo found in the opening movement, the energy level ramped up from one movement to the next. The rhetoric of the first movement was chant-like with a parlando approach to the melody lines, while, in the second movement, the piano provided the ostinato pattern above which the cello and violin wove elaborately thicker textures. The final movement then burst forth with the aggressive rapidity often encountered in concluding movements by Béla Bartók.

Suda also participated in a new world premiere. She commissioned this one together with her Nonsemble 6 flute colleague, Justin Lee, as part of a duo program they have prepared for performance later this week entitled Folk Tales. Paranj’s new piece is entitled “The Unattained” and is structured in two movements. In both of these movements, Paranj has composed thematic material for the flute evocative a Persian shepherd’s pipe, not only through melodic line but also through some striking breath techniques. The first movement suggests the shepherd alone with his flock, diverting himself with his instruments, while the second movement is then based on dances for pipe and dohol, a Persian drum. Consequently, Suda was responsible for a diverse palette of percussive effects, not just from the body of her instrument but also arising from both bowing and plucking techniques applied to her melodic material. In composing this part, Paranj was clearly informed by his studies with both Culp and Van Geem.

Both of these chamber music compositions thus revealed the capacity of Western instruments to capture expressiveness inspired by Persian source material, whether through the appropriation of thematic material or simply through the rhetorical spirit of particular Persian genres. This could also be said of the opening selection, a viola solo entitled “Shade,” performed by Omid Assadi. This music was very much a synthesis of the sort of late nineteenth-century expressive virtuosity that had been captured so capably in the solo violin sonatas of Eugène Ysaÿe with thematic material again conceived to evoke indigenous Persian sources. Somewhat less successful was “Natural Spring,” a setting of a Persian text by the poet Rumi for soprano (Lauren Borden-Chandler) and piano (Daniel Chang). The program book included an English translation of that text by Mohammad Kolahdooz, but the connection between the semantics of Kolahdooz’ translation and the expressiveness of both the score and its execution was never established very well, particularly for those of us unfamiliar with the source language.

Not all of Paranj’s works use Persian culture as a point of departure. The first half of the program also included “Molten Brass,” composed on a commission from the International Low Brass Trio (Jess Rodda on tuba, Jeff Dittmer on horn, and Gabriel Cruz on trombone). This was a fascinating study in the development of motivic material confined to the lower register. Each of the three instruments had its own particular set of affordances in stating thematic material. Those affordances were first explored in isolation and then in combination. By the end of this short single-movement work, the “molten” superposition of these instrumental styles had merged into a single “alloy” of strikingly original sonority, resulting in some of the most interesting writing for a brass ensemble that I had experienced in some time.

The evening concluded with a focus on percussion. In 2012 Paranj founded Sarkesh Percussion, bringing together three performers of Western instruments (Justin Sun, John Thenell, and Trevor Dolce) with Paranj himself and two fellow Persians, Shahin and Naasim Gorgani. The ensemble performed “Raghs-e Lang,” which explored the possibilities for rhythmic interplay across the two styles of instruments. Paranj played the zarb drum, whose head allows for a generous amount of melodic range. Thus, between the zarb and Thenell’s timpani work, the rhythmic material was supplemented with a generous share of melodic lines.

Paranj was even more melodically expressive on the smaller tombak from the same family as the zarb. He concluded his program by improvising on this drum along with Tahmoures Pournazeri on the plucked-string tar. As was the case in the piano trio, this improvisation was music organized around a gradual increase in energy level, progressing from an incantatory introduction on the tar into a rich complex of rhythmic and melodic exchanges by the ending, providing a stimulating conclusion to an evening of many fascinating discoveries.