On Wednesday, March 20, at exactly 2:58 p.m. PST, the sun will cross the celestial equator. It’s the vernal equinox, when day and night are of equal length, and it’s the official start of spring. It is also Nowruz, the Persian New Year, the only holiday on earth celebrated at the exact same moment worldwide.
Southern California has the largest population of Persians living outside of Iran itself, and in a merging of cultures, the Pacific Symphony will mark the event with a concert blending music from the Western classical canon with Persian symphonic and folk music. The sold out concert, presented in collaboration with the Farhang Foundation, and led by the symphony’s Music Director Carl St. Clair, will take place on March 24 at Segerstrom Concert Hall.
At the center of all this activity is Anoosheh Oskouian, CEO of Ship & Shore Environmental, a Pacific Symphony board member, a trustee of the Farhang Foundation (the cultural sponsor for the event), and the driving force behind the evening. She’s celebrated the holiday since childhood, and is happy to bring the spirit and traditions of Nowruz to Orange County.
“I remember my parents and grandparents coming together at the hour when the equinox takes place,” Oskouian says, “saying prayers around the table and wishing everyone well, for health and good fortune to come. It’s a great time of pure joy. You’re supposed to have sweets during the celebration to have a sweet taste in your mouth for the new year.”
The word “Nowruz” translates to “new day,” and its placement on the Iranian calendar goes back thousands of years. It’s one of the most ancient and important festivals for those with Persian heritage, a holiday of happiness, of renewal, and of unity.
“The celebration has stayed with the population, as people have migrated around the world,” she says. “No matter where they are, they commonly come together and begin celebrating the start of the rebirth of the earth. In Iranian culture, regardless of religion, culture, background, or ethnicity from one region to next, everyone comes together for the one celebration. Everyone celebrates it in the same format. And the beauty behind it is that it brings people together for the sole purpose of unity.”
With the number of Iranians in the region, a large-scale gathering for a Nowruz festival seems almost inevitable. There have been obstacles, naturally, but for Oskouian the struggles have all been worthwhile.
“This was a very dear celebration to me as a child and now I am in a place and position to be able to pull this together,” she says. “It’s an attempt to bring Iranian-Americans in the community together and introduce the community to the symphony and arrange for a series of supporters and contributors and donors to come together and celebrate.
“We have a guest conductor for a few of the pieces at the beginning of the program and the second half is an ensemble traveling from Iran. Through major difficulties we’ve got the visas for them; they have been granted and issued visas.”
Critical to the event is the effort to counter misunderstandings about Iranian culture. Music is a universal language, and this concert is a way to bridge East and West.
“Our generation that migrated from Tehran went through hardship to make this our home,” she says. “And through music and the unspoken language of our hearts, we get to share this new year’s celebration in one night. Many people have never seen this side of our community, they only see what is portrayed. We want to make sure people know who Iranians are, who Persians are, and that we are truly different from what the media or the current government in Iran presents of us. Everything we do is designed to give a better view as to what this culture is about, that we are the children of Cyrus the Great, not what we are presented as right now.”
The program includes works by Khachaturian and Dvorák but is anchored by the appearance of Shardad Rohani, a violinist, pianist, composer, and music director of the Tehran Symphony Orchestra.
Also joining the symphony will be two of Iran’s most prominent musicians, vocalist Homayoun Shajarian and Sohrab Pournazeri, virtuoso of the tanbour (a long-necked string instrument similar to a mandolin) and the kamancheh (a bowed string instrument held like a cello). Shajarian is one of iran’s most celebrated musicians, with an extensive discography and a strong musical heritage (his father is considered “the grand master vocalist of Persian traditional music”). Pournazeri is also lauded as one of Iran’s most accomplished and celebrated musicians.
Rohani’s composition “Dance of Spring” concludes the first half, and Rohani will be sharing podium duties with St.Clair.
St.Clair has long been committed to bringing diverse and contextualized programming to Orange County, and is thrilled to be bringing Rohani and a core of renowned Iranian musicians to Segerstrom Concert Hall.
“We are doing five of Rohani’s compositions in which he will be either playing, conducting or would have composed,” says St.Clair. “As music director of the Tehran Symphony, Maestro Rohani is a most distinguished and heralded musician. I wanted him to open our program with a work he loves and wants to share with our audience on this most celebrated evening. He selected Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, a delightful curtain raiser to be sure.”
And what should Orange County audiences be listening for regarding the rest of the program? What characterizes Iranian music?
“It’s fun,” says St.Clair. “Pure, uplifting, and high-spirited music. Yes, there are the intoxicating rhythms and rich exotic melodies, but at the very heart is expression of joy, love and enjoyment. It’s music which finds its home and purpose in ringing in the New Year.”
“We’ll have high-caliber artists come in and perform, and enhance the classical music we have here, but add flavor to it. And one thing Carl always says, music is a birthright and people should really embrace it. And that’s where people can put their differences aside and come together and enjoy this as a celebration more than anything else.”
Peter Lefevre is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He may be reached at [email protected].