It was a notable event when Iranian composer Loris Tjeknavorian arrived in the Bay Area from Tehran this week, just to attend the Oakland East Bay Symphony’s performance on March 14 of a suite from his opera "Rostam and Sohrab."
Notable, that is, but not unusual for the acclaimed 70-year-old composer and conductor. He studied in Vienna and Salzburg, Austria, and his career has taken him to Europe, Japan and South America. He has crisscrossed the United States to conduct in Los Angeles and New York, and teach at colleges and universities in Michigan and Minnesota.
Although he has composed more than 70 works, and recorded many of those, he may be best known in America as a conductor. Among those assignments, he conducted the San Francisco Opera’s 2001 American premiere of "Arshak II" by Armenian composer Tigran Chukhadjian.
In fact, he’s visited California and the Bay Area many times, keeping in touch with others who share his Armenian heritage, such as the late writer William Saroyan and former governor George Deukmejian.
That heritage remains an important part of his professional life as well. Tjeknavorian has long conducted the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, and his recording of his Symphony No. 1 carries the dedication "to the 60th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide of 1915."
"My mother escaped the massacre by the Turks in western Armenia, and my father escaped from the Russian occupation of eastern Armenia in 1920," Tjeknavorian said during an interview this week at the Persian Center in downtown Berkeley. Turkey to this day denies that it committed genocide against Armenians.
It is another facet of Tjeknavorian’s background, however, that is central to this weekend’s concert at the Paramount Theatre. "I’m Iranian. I was born and grew up in Iran," he says. "It’s a great culture."
The Oakland East Bay Symphony concert is planned by music director and conductor Michael Morgan to explore several facets of that culture. It will include a suite from Tjeknavorian’s opera as well as the American premiere of the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Aminollah Hossein, who was born in Samarkand, but lived most of his life in France.
Also on the program is a selection of six folk songs representing Iran’s different geographical regions, arranged by composer David Garner and sung by mezzo-soprano Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai. Pianist Tara Kamangar will be the soloist in the Hossein concerto as well as in Rachmaninoff’s "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini." Richard Strauss’ tone poem "Don Juan" completes the bill.
Tjeknavorian’s portion of the program may last 35 minutes, but the sweep and drama of the "Rostam and Sohrab" suite, judging from the performance he conducts on a CD, suggest the vast scale on which he works.
"I have written eight versions of this opera over 25 years," he said, "and this is the first time any of the music has been performed in the United States." The opera is based on "Shahnameh," the epic poem that follows the creation of the world up until the Islamic conquest of seventh century Persia. It awaits its first staging, although it has been performed as an oratorio in Iran and Austria.
Tjeknavorian thinks "" and composes "" on a grand scale. "I like to write big works," he said.
Among them are five symphonies, four operas and a number of oratorios, one based on Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. "The only drawback is that it takes six hours to perform," he said. "Believe it or not, I would like to take on the King Arthur story, if I find a good librettist."
His next composition, he said, returns to his geographic roots. It will be an orchestral and vocal work about Cyrus the Great, the king of Persia in the sixth century B.C. who is known as the founder of the Persian Empire. He is admired as a liberator rather than a conqueror who respected the customs and religions of each part of his vast empire.
"He was a democratic king "" just unique," Tjeknavorian said. "His proclamation of freedom, his record on human rights were really superb."
At home in Tehran, Tjeknavorian is busy as both as a composer (he says his scores fill 8,000 pages in 16 volumes by now) and a symphony conductor, giving 20 to 30 performances a year. "It is an international mix of music," he said, including American composers Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, "and a Sousa march !"
Tjeknavorian is also a champion of the best-known Armenian composer, Aram Khachaturian, who was born in Georgia before it became part of the Soviet Union.
Before the 1979 revolution that ended the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Tjeknavorian also conducted the opera orchestra in Tehran. Now he conducts symphony concerts in the Opera House. "The Opera doesn’t exist anymore, or the Ballet," he said.
Tjeknavorian said politics "" or strained relations between Iran and the United States "" don’t affect his life as a composer and conductor. "At 70, I’ve seen a lot of changes in my life," he said. "The artists have to be smart enough not to get involved in politics. I hope I survive all the politicians."
Reach Robert Taylor at 925-977-8428 or rtaylor@bayarea newsgroup.com.
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