The Tehran Symphony Orchestra versus Realpolitik Saving the World with Music

The German city of Osnabrück is hosting a music festival which may feature an unusual guest -- the Tehran Symphony Orchestra. But will Iran allow the ensemble to travel to the decadent West?

Back during the revolution, 27 years ago, it was perfectly clear where sin began: "Those who listen to music will have molten lead poured into their ears in hell," said Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Though she wasn't yet alive back then, Sarah Bejram Sadegan has of course heard of the deceased revolutionary leader's verdict. The 23-year-old was born into an Islamic Republic where radical clerics declared music "gehnai" or "depraved."

Sadegan is a violinist with the Tehran Symphony Orchestra. She's sitting in the office of the new chief conductor in an ankle-length blue skirt and, in accordance with the law, she is wearing a headscarf. She's just come back from a rehearsal of "Peter and the Wolf," the musical fairy tale by Sergei Prokofiev. And she's still glowing with delight. "How can such a sweet expression of emotion be sinful," she asks?

In Iran, such sweetness is usually sinful when it comes from the West. Especially in times of global power politics, when nuclear energy and nuclear bombs -- and war and peace -- hang in the balance. Extremist clerics still consider such composers as Prokofiev, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven as representatives of a West that wants to culturally undermine Iran -- just as Europe and the US deny Iran the right to the bomb.

Low pay is obligatory

Despite this, the Tehran Symphony Orchestra has survived the revolution and everything else more or less intact. If only just barely. There are hardly any funds for new instruments and good conductors, attractive performance opportunities are rare, and low pay is obligatory. Professional musicians such as Sadegan earn the equivalent of $300 per month at best; most have one or two side jobs as drivers, salesmen or members in another orchestra.

The Tehran Symphony Orchestra used to be a world-class ensemble, unique in the oriental world. It performed for such luminaries as Shah Mohammad Reza and Queen Farah Diba. The Shah held avant-garde art festivals and had greats like John Cage, Herbert von Karajan and Arnold Schönberg flown in to demonstrate the country's sophistication. The result was a range spectacular events with a hand-picked audience and deliberate pomp.

This arrogance of power was one cause contributing to the revolution and the fall of the regime. A huge photograph from the old days is still on display in a corridor next to the Symphony Orchestra's rehearsal room: Blonde women with elaborate hairstyles and men in tuxedos, singing the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Not much later, talented musicians like these found themselves performing in military bands for the soldiers on the Iraqi-Iranian front.

But now the orchestra is hoping for a new musical high point -- in Germany. The artistic director of the "Osnabrück Orient Festival," Michael Dreyer, has invited the orchestra to participate in a top-class event in August. The focus will be Iran.

The organizer considers his offer a political gesture -- and indeed, everything in Iran is a political issue these days. Last week, Dreyer went to Tehran to drum up support for his project -- quite successfully, even if he won't know until the last moment whether the orchestra will be allowed to travel or not. President Ahmadinejad's advisors have to approve the invitation first.

A minor sensation

The timing of Dreyer's visit was inauspicious. President Ahmadinejad had just sent his 18-page letter to US President George W. Bush. He then turned around and mocked the European offer to provide him with a light-water reactor in return for abandoning uranium enrichment, saying it was like trading chocolate for gold.

Amid such an atmosphere, Dreyer's project is considered a minor sensation in Tehran. When the European Union ambassadors wanted to invite a British baroque ensemble to Tehran for Europe Day on May 9, the local bureaucrats denied them permission. A performance by pianist Christina Brandner from Freiburg, meant to take place in Freiburg's partner city Isfahan in early May, was cancelled when the Goethe Institute requested that men be allowed in the audience to watch the female violinist.

Mohammed Hussein Homafar is the director of the music consortium responsible for the Tehran Symphony Orchestra. And like the Iranian president, he doesn't wear ties, which are frowned upon in Iran. Homafar presents himself as moderate and cosmopolitan and supports the Osnabrück festival idea. "We're tolerant of other cultures, and we want to show this," he says. Two large photographs hang in his office. One of them shows the spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the other is of Khomeini. Both are wearing austere-looking robes.

German diplomats too adhere to the idea that art could help bridge the political gap. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier unexpectedly took over the patronage for the German-Iranian music event last week. The German Federal Cultural Foundation wants to support it to the tune of €50,000 ($64,000). Daniel Barenboim, conductor of the Staatsoper opera house on Berlin's Unter den Linden is offering his Tehran colleagues the use of his facility as a venue. And the Castle Neuhardenberg Foundation -- Stiftung Schloss Neuhardenberg -- which is politically well connected both in Tehran and in Berlin, is offering the Iranian musicians a performance in the Schinkelkirche church in Neuhardenberg, some 60 kilometers east of Berlin, complete with a reception for representatives from both Germany and Iran.

Indeed, the little festival in Osnabrück could turn into an internationally significant political event -- if it really takes place.

Nuclear energy, repressed sexuality and drug abuse

Tehran's artists and intellectuals do their utmost to save their art from politics. And they show little love for the mullahs' nuclear ambitions. Their worldview more closely resembles the "no future" mentality that dominated similar circles in the Europe of the 1980s. Photographer Siaian Peschman, 35, calls his installation in an artists' café near Tehran University "3.5, Sex, Drugs, Colors." He says he's confronting the four greatest problems faced by the youth of Iran: threats to nature posed by environmental destruction and nuclear energy; repressed sexuality; the destruction caused by drug abuse; and the struggle for survival in large cities such as Tehran. "Why should we build a bomb as well," he wonders? The number 3.5 stands for the degree to which Iran is thought to have successfully enriched uranium -- a scientific achievement that makes the country a nuclear power, as President Ahmadinejad pompously announced.

Half an hour north by car, where the city blends into the Albors Mountains, Mohammad Javad Larijani welcomes visitors to his pleasantly air-conditioned executive's office in the Institute for Studies in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics. With his round reading glasses, his cigar and his slightly tousled hair, he looks like a film industry magnate casting a new production. A cleric and a politician, he's the older brother of Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani. He also used to be a student at University of California, Berkeley -- which he left just before the revolution to return to Iran. Larijani belongs to Iran's exclusive class of modern theocrats, and he has an answer to every question.

The nuclear conflict with the West? Iran will of course continue its nuclear program, he says, adding that he's "optimistic" an amicable agreement will be reached -- one that involves either inspections as in Japan, or the participation of several nations in the program. The participants, of course, would then be able to convince themselves of the Iran's peaceful intentions. He takes another deep drag on his cigar and looks very relaxed.

The limits of music? It's sinful when music has an erotic effect, he says -- when it "encourages sexual behavior." It's as simple as that.

The Tehran Symphony Orchestra is rehearsing in the Rudaki Hall. The new chief conductor, 48-year-old Nader Mashayekhi, exhorts the string section to reduce its pace at the point in the score where Peter hides from the big bad wolf. The artists are placing all their hopes for a new beginning in Mashayekhi, an Iranian composer who has lived in Vienna for 28 years and who has now returned to Tehran. Mashayekhi is currently composing a 12-minute piece, the superimposition of a Western symphony work on traditional Persian music.

He wants it to premiere soon -- in Osnabrück, Germany, at the festival that has unexpectedly become so significant.

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