Persian Pursuits: A Columbus World Premiere and Persian Festival

May 2, 2012

When Columbus-based composer Richard Jordan Smoot took on physician Hooman Khabiri as a music student more than a decade ago, he could not have known that what he would learn would be at least as transformative as what he would teach. But it was. After years of friendship with the Iranian-born Khabiri and exploring Iranian and Persian culture under Khabiri's inspiration, Smoot's most recent chamber work, the Khabiri Quartet, will be receive its world premiere Friday, May 4 at 8 p.m. at Columbus' Harrison Park Community Center. The Carpe Diem String Quartet and the Columbus Dance Theatre will give three performances of the Khabiri Quartet as part of A Persian Musical Feast, a festival May 4-6 of traditional Persian and Persian-inspired musical performances; panel discussions, lectures and workshops on Persian culture and samplings of Persian food. Named after Khabiri, a radiologist at The Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center, Smoot's Khabiri Quartet is a testament to the creative power of friendship and mutual cultural understanding. Khabiri has studied classical guitar and Western music theory privately with Smoot for more than a decade. As he learned guitar technique and the intricacies of scales, chords and rhythms, Khabiri also taught Smoot a few things about the music of his native Iran. "(Our) musical conversations have been vibrant," Smoot said. " I started to immerse myself in (traditional Persian) music and I dug into the theory, somewhat, of this music as best I could. And as I proceeded I discovered what a wealthy tradition it is. And it's not something that you're going to be able to approach as a tourist. If I had not had Hooman as a source of information and friendship and someone who was pointing me in the direction of so many things, the quartet would not exist." Smoot came to accept what he calls his "tourist status" and continued his journey into Persian culture, guided by Khabiri's knowledge of Persian philosophy, visual art and literature. Smoot's Persian pursuits found a creative outlet when he pitched the idea of organizing a festival of Persian culture to members of the Carpe Diem String Quartet. Carpe Diem commissioned him to compose a quartet and funded the commission, and the Khabiri Quartet was born. By Smoot's own description, the Khabiri Quartet is a reflection of his intellectual and imaginary peregrinations through Persian culture. The first of the quartet's four movements, titled "An American in Persia," takes George Gershwin's An American in Paris as a point of departure for a Middle Eastern musical journey. "I've tried to create in that movement a feeling that we're traveling somewhere," Smoot said. "I’ve never been to Iran, so it's a virtual journey into my interpretation of things cultural of a Persian nature." The second movement, "Diaspora," imagines through Persian folksong the longing of Iranians who have left their homeland. "So many people of (Iran) have been through a kind of diaspora in which they come from somewhere else and they end up here and they build a new life," Smoot said. In the quartet's final two movements, Smoot offers musical depictions of the relationship between Rumi and his spiritual mentor, Shams, complete with whirling dervishes danced by the Columbus Dance Theatre. Joining Smoot's Khabiri Quartet on the festival's concerts are works by Iranian composer Reza Vali. A Persian Musical Feast also will include performances by santoor player Dariush Saghafi, vocalist Shoreh Elhami and setar player Javad Ashrafi, and a lecture on Persian culture by Richard Davis, chair of The Ohio State University's Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. All festival concerts will offer Persian delicacies provided by Nanak Bakery, with Persian ice cream the featured fare at a free children's concert Sunday, May 6 at 2 p.m. Smoot is quick to point out that a world premiere can quickly go to a composer's head. But amid the music and dance, the lectures and delicacies, he says the heart of this weekend's Persian mini festival still rests in friendship forged - through music - between two seemingly distant cultures. "I would say that like so many Americans we know about the Iranian experience through the media, and it's very hard to get a sense for what life is like on the ground, so to speak," Smoot said. "Having a human face on things and the slow process of change that comes with a good friendship, a lot of biases or even preconceived notions can disappear based on true knowledge. I have new friends from this experience, and I think that is a nice legacy." The world premiere of Richard Jordan Smoot's Khabiri Quartet takes place Friday, May 4, 2012, at 8 p.m. at Harrison Park Community Center, 575 W. First Ave., Columbus, 43215. Tickets at 614.205.8160 or