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Osnabrueck Symphony Orchestra in Iran


Iran's Nuclear Standoff With West Embroils Beethoven, Brahms 

By Shanthy Nambiar

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Oct. 19 (Bloomberg) -- German music director Michael Dreyer received more than 100 irate e-mails for bringing Beethoven and Brahms to Iran this summer.

For two days in August, the 60-member Osnabrueck Symphony Orchestra played before 1,200 people in Tehran, the largest European classical ensemble in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Dreyer and musicians such as Nader Mashayekhi, leader of the 80-member Tehran Symphony Orchestra, and U.S.- based classical guitarist Lily Afshar are trying to use music to lessen tension between Iran and the West. They have an uphill job.

The U.S. government is pushing for tighter international sanctions against Iran over uranium enrichment, which the Bush administration says may be used to build nuclear weapons. In the arts, Iran's leaders are better known for banning Western influences and condemning to death British-Indian author Salman Rushdie for his book ``The Satanic Verses.''

``It was actually not possible to get an official invitation'' to Iran, said Dreyer, founder of Morgenland Festival of oriental music in Osnabrueck. ``We invited ourselves.'' On his return, he was ``accused of collaborating with a terror regime.''

Persia, now Iran, was for centuries a center of calligraphy, miniature paintings, music and Rumi's Sufi, a mystic poetry.

The 1979 revolution brought Shiite clerics to power, led by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. They banned much Western music, movies and art, on concern that the influence would harm Islamic morality. When Mohammad Khatami came to power in 1997, he relaxed dress codes for women, increased foreign investment and introduced reforms until his term ended in 2005.

Small Step

``There are some people in high positions in Iran who think it's now the time to open to the Western world and cooperate,'' Dreyer said. The concert ``is a very little step, but it is a step nonetheless. It is opening a door that was closed for 28 years.''

Concerts in the Islamic republic are still subject to strict controls, said Afshar, who has performed in Iran since 2001. Like the female musicians of the Osnabrueck Symphony, Afshar must be fully covered and wear a chador or headscarf when on stage.

``Some of my concerts got canceled,'' said the Iranian-born musician, who heads the University of Memphis guitar program. ``You don't know if it is going to happen or not. There is always somebody backstage that oversees what you are wearing. She will tell you if your hair is showing under the scarf.''

Attempts by Afshar and other musicians to strengthen cultural ties with the West take place amid increasing political tension. Iran, with a population of 69 million, has faced United Nations sanctions since December for refusing to halt uranium enrichment.

Rushdie Death Threat

Novelist Rushdie spent nine years in hiding after being condemned to death by Khomeini in 1989 on a charge of blasphemy. Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was released in August after almost four months in prison in Iran.

``The Iranian government is using national security as a pretense for shutting down people and trying to limit freedom of expression,'' said Joe Stork, deputy director for Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch in Washington. ``The atmosphere has gotten more restrictive.''

Music in Iran ``is a complex subject,'' said Mashayekhi, 49, who led the Tehran Symphony at concerts in Osnabrueck and Berlin in August 2006. ``In television and radio in Iran, they are beginning to think about classical music.'' Mashayekhi returned to Tehran in 2005 after 28-years in Austria.

``Through various performances, an international cooperation is taking place based on a healthy foundation,'' said Mohammad-Hossein Ahmadi, general director of music and poetry at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in Tehran.

Sounds of Nature

Musical exchanges are not just based on classical Western compositions. Iran's revolution revived traditional Iranian music that incorporates sounds of nature, poetry and mysticism, said Washington-based Roya Bahrami, a classical Iranian musician and composer, who moved to the U.S. in 1977 from Tehran.

``We have interesting works of fusion based on Iranian traditional music blended with classical, jazz and pop genres,'' said Bahrami, who plays the santur, an instrument from the 7th century BC. ``As Iran regained its culture identity, it is now healthy to go through cultural exchanges.''

Iranian-born Loris Tjeknavorian, 70, former artistic director of the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, performed in August with the Tehran Symphony and 15 musicians from the Armenian ensemble.

``There is great interest in classical music and religious music,'' he said from Tehran. Tjeknavorian will conduct charity concerts in Iran from Nov. 26 through Dec. 6 in a festival supported by the Austrian Embassy.

`Decadent and Subversive'

Iran's leaders still ``warn against `decadent and subversive Western culture,''' said Zohreh, 38, a photographer in Tehran who attended the Osnabrueck recital. ``Religion is not a matter of choice but forced on us. Dissenting ideas are outlawed.''

Still, many affluent and middle-class Iranians tune into Oprah and MTV, beamed via satellite, said Memphis-based Nikoo Paydar, 25, the Iranian-American co-founder of Iranian Alliances Across Borders. Satellite dishes for such broadcasts are illegal, said Ahmadi. Internet sites are censored for sexual and political content, according to Human Rights Watch.

``Sometimes they crack down in people's homes,'' said Ali M. Nafisi, a computer technician from Tehran, on vacation in Paris. ``But in less than a week, people have their dishes out on their buildings again.''

Meanwhile, musicians try to forge cultural ties legally.

``Western music is not played often but when it is, it is very much appreciated,'' said Afshar, who teaches three-day guitar classes in Tehran and Shiraz. Iranians are ``just hungry for music. Culture and concerts bring people together.''

To contact the reporters on this story: Shanthy Nambiar in Bangkok atSnambiar1@bloomberg.net ;

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