SirventèsBrian Thornton & Iranian Female Composers Association


Cleveland Orchestra cellist Brian Thornton releases Sirventés, a collection of new works for cello, solo and in ensemble, by members of the Iranian Female Composers Association. Thornton's powerfully expressive style is perfectly suited for these characterful works. In a fraught moment for members of the Iranian diaspora, IFCA and Thornton make a statement that gives voice to the work of several Iranian female composers.


Cellist Brian Thornton releases this evocative collection of solo and ensemble works by members of the Iranian Female Composers Association (IFCA). Thornton’s rich sound and expressive power are perfectly suited for the diverse range of aesthetics represented on the album. The works are a testament to an enduring cultural thread in works by members of the Iranian diaspora despite the divergent situations in which they found themselves creating their music.

Sirventès opens with a four part work written for string quartet in 2017 by Mahdis Golzar Kashani, And the Moses Drowned. The Tehran born Kashani dedicates the piece to children killed in the Syrian war. The opening “Largo, Espressivo: develops a motive of repeated notes followed by a descending glissando, landing on a prayerful pad of harmony. Kashani contrasts that figure with longer sustained lines that intensify dramatic tension. “Vivace, Con Brio” is vigorously rhythmic, traversing folkloric, modal material in mixed meter. In “Lento, Con Moto” we hear a mournful melody offset by spiccato interjections. “Vivaco, Con Brio” reprises the material from the previous Vivace, bringing the piece to a forceful conclusion.

Nina Barzegar’s solo cello work Vulnerable follows, exploring the delicacy of note choice in a modal context. Drawing parallels between emotional vulnerability and the vulnerability of a musical system in which subtle note changes alter the meaning of a phrase, Barzegar develops a dialogue between bowed and plucked notes, establishing a ritual tone from the work’s opening notes, wringing expression out of the pizzicato passages with subtle glissandi. The second half of the work becomes more animated, culminating in a passage of implied counterpoint between the low and middle registers, before reintegrating the pizzicato gestures for its close.

Nasim Khorassani’s Growth for string trio emerges from a four note cell of B, C, D, and Eflat. Tremolandos percolate under searching melodic figures as the instruments trade foreground roles. Khorassani mines the intervallic content of the four pitches, vertically, and melodically, to create a texture that gains its intensity from its focus.

Niloufar Iravani’s 2017 string quartet The Maze is in three parts, depicting the evolution of emotions as one navigates a maze. “Energetic” is in the Phrygian mode, and opens in a flowing, triple meter to capture the excited anticipation of beginning the journey. “Lyrical” turns to the octatonic scale for pitch material, its symmetrical structure an apt choice for expressing the feeling of going around in circles. Ives’ Unanswered Question is the inspiration for the final movement, “Mysterious,” as insistent repeated figures capture the rising stress of looking, and not finding, a way out. The major sixth chord that closes the piece suggests that the protagonist has emerged unharmed from the maze.

Anahita Abbasi’s title track for cello and percussion contains the album’s most adventurous music. The origin of the word sirventés lies in the south of France, where it was a sung poem that was usually either satirical, political, or a morality play. Ancient Persia also had a rich tradition of sung storytelling, and here Abbasi channels both lineages, narrating an abstract tale through rarefied sounds on the two instruments. The writing for both instruments migrates between pitched and unpitched, conventional and extended sounds, putting them on equal footing and lending them versatility in terms of their roles in the story. Abbasi deftly paints the setting with evocative foreground and background activity, establishing quasi-leitmotifs throughout (the hybrid gesture of bells-woodblock-cello overpressure for instance) that give structural clarity and suggest characters navigating a linear story.

Mina Arissian’s Suite for Cello closes the album in romantic, lyrical fashion, as she explores questions of migration, hope, and renewal. It is an ideal vehicle for Thornton’s powerfully expressive playing. The opening movement centers around an incomplete phrase, echoing the uncertainty of starting a new journey in life. Tempered exuberance characterizes the second movement, with arpeggiations activating the resonance of the instruments, a veiled sense of hope peaking through the clouds. The final movement traverses more diverse territory, from climactic tremolos, to haunting, disembodied harmonics, to furious passagework.

Thornton’s playing is exquisite throughout, always at the service of the composition and the musical moment. Sirventés presents only one snapshot of a vibrant and vital repertoire from Iranian composers throughout the world. The album contributes to the continued life of these valuable pieces in the hopes that they find their way into the hands of many other cellists.

- Dan Lippel

Executive Producer: Brian Thornton
Recording Producer: Elaine Martone

Recorded at Severance Hall, Cleveland, OH. March 20, 21, 30 and April 10, 11, 2022
Recorded, Mixed and Mastered by Robert Friedrich, Five/Four Productions, LLC.®

Track 7 (Sirventés)
Produced and Edited by Thomas C. Moore, Five/Four Productions, Ltd.®
Recorded by Ron Searles at Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto, Canada. August 31, 2021
Edited by Robert Friedrich and Ian Dobie, Five/Four Productions, LLC.®

Cover art: Deniz Khateri
Design and layout: Marc Wolf,
Photos: Roger Mastroianni, DaShaunae Marisa
Text editing: Erin Purdy

Brian Thornton

Brian Thornton performs with the Cleveland Orchestra where he has been part of the cello section for twenty-eight seasons. His first solo album, “Kol Nidrei and Beyond: Lev’s Story,” is centered on the vocal qualities of the cello and is dedicated to the memory of Lev Aronson, a renowned pedagogue and Holocaust survivor. Education is also a focus of Brian’s life, and he devotes significant time to teaching, conducting young musicians, and traveling to teach internationally. Brian began playing the cello in the public school system of Chicago, giving him a passion for teaching young musicians through public school outreach programs. He has traveled from Kolkata, India, to Osaka, Japan, influencing young musicians to not only play better cello, but also to use music to positively affect the world around them. Modern music is of particular interest to Brian, and he has premiered more than a hundred new solo cello works around the world.

Katherine Bormann

Katherine Bormann joined the first violin section of the Cleveland Orchestra in 2011. She completed degrees at Rice University and the Juilliard School, and subsequently became a member of the New World Symphony in Miami, where she performed as soloist and concertmaster. Katherine has performed at Strings Music Festival, Mainly Mozart Festival, Aspen Music Festival, and Tanglewood Music Festival, where she was also a member of the contemporary music ensemble New Fromm Players. She has appeared on the Wednesdays at One concert series at Alice Tully Hall, taught and performed as part of the annual Kent Blossom Music Festival, and served as concertmaster of Northeast Ohio’s Suburban Symphony Orchestra. Katherine has been a guest Lecturer at Baldwin Wallace University and at the University of the Pacific’s Conservatory of Music. She is currently on the Board of Trustees of the New World Symphony.

Alicia Koelz

Alicia Koelz joined the first violin section of the Cleveland Orchestra in 2005. Prior to joining the orchestra, she spent two years as concertmaster of Chicago Civic Orchestra. Alicia has appeared as a soloist with the Minnesota Orchestra, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Chicago Civic Orchestra, among others. Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, she moved to Cleveland to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music and subsequently received a graduate degree from Northwestern University. As a founding member of the Omni Quartet, she has performed extensively in the Cleveland area, as well as on the east coast and in Europe. Alicia lives in Moreland Hills with her husband, three lovely and extremely energetic children, and many pets.

Eliesha Nelson

Eliesha Nelson was born and raised in the interior of Alaska. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s of music at the Cleveland Institute of Music and an artist’s diploma from the Royal Academy of Music in London through a Fulbright award. Her teachers have included Robert Vernon, Linda Cerone, and Gyorgy Pauk. Eliesha served as acting principal viola of the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra and is presently a member of the Cleveland Orchestra. She has appeared as soloist with orchestras including the Ohio Chamber Orchestra and the San Antonio Symphony. One of her major passions is chamber music, which she taught for several years at ENCORE School for Strings. She also taught viola at the Cleveland School of the Arts (Lower Campus) and currently teaches at the CSA high school as part of the Cleveland Orchestra Music Mentors program. She released her first album, “Quincy Porter Viola Works,” in 2009 and was nominated in four Grammy categories, winning “Best Engineered Album, Classical.” She has done two more recordings under the Sono Luminus label.

Callisto Quartet

Praised for their “lush intensity and bravado” and the “cohesion and intonation one might expect from an ensemble twice their age,” the Callisto Quartet brings together four musicians with a deep passion for bringing chamber music to audiences around the world. Since their inception in 2016, Callisto has garnered top prizes in nearly every major international chamber music competition, including the Grand Prize of the 2018 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition and Second Prize of the 2019 Banff International String Quartet Competition. The quartet also has taken home prizes from the Bordeaux, Melbourne, and Wigmore Hall competitions. Currently the Fellowship Quartet in Residence at Yale University, Callisto previously held residencies at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and the Escuela Superior de Música Reina Sofía in Madrid, Spain. The Callisto Quartet maintains an active touring and performing schedule, with past appearances at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall, the Kennedy Center, the Schneider Concert Series, Ravinia Festival, and the Heidelberg String Quartet Festival.

Amahl Arulanandam

Toronto-based cellist Amahl Arulanandam is known for his versatility and ability to adapt to many different genres ranging from baroque music to death metal. Amahl hopes to convey that musical expression transcends genres and labels. He is quickly becoming known as a strong advocate for the music of our time, performing with such ensembles as Soundstreams, New Music Concerts, Tapestry Opera, FAWN Chamber Creative, Thin Edge New Music Collective, Freesound Collective, and Music in the Barns, as well as regular appearances at the 21C Music Festival. He has worked closely with leading composers including Salvatore Sciarrino, Ana Sokolovic, Luna Pearl Woolf, Bekah Simms, and Brian Current, and has been involved in the global premieres of dozens of new works. Amahl takes special pleasure in playing on areas of the cello other than the strings.

Nathan Petitpas

Nathan Petitpas is a percussionist, composer, and educator who is dedicated to the performance of contemporary music by liv- ing composers. Through his ongoing work with new music organi- zations such as the Thin Edge New Music Collective, Array Music, the Esprit Orchestra, FAWN Chamber Creative, and the Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan, Nathan has had the great pleasure of premiering dozens of new works by living composers. He has performed in various festivals and concert series including the In- ternationales Gamelan Musikfestival in Munich, Nuit Blanche To- ronto, New Works Edmonton, Société de Musique Contemporaine du Québec, New Music Calgary, Music on Main (Vancouver), and Open Spaces in Victoria. Outside of a contemporary music context, Nathan performs regularly in the orchestra and as a drummer in various projects.

Mahdis Golzar Kashani

Mahdis Golzar Kashani was born in Tehran and began piano lessons at the age of six. Due to the unstable social and political atmosphere in Iran, Mahdis majored in electronic engineering in 2009, but she continued to study music with different masters. She learned musicianship from Haynoush Makarian and Tamara Dolidze and studied theoretical materials and composition from Mehran Rohani. She entered core Art University in Tehran and mastered composition in 2012. She has presented her works in the United States and several European countries including Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, France, England, and Ukraine. She also has performed in Latin America, East Asia (including Indonesia and Malaysia), and Australia, and has won several international awards. Her achievements include commissions from Luca School of Arts and campus Lemmensinstitut (Belgium), Young Soloist of Belgium National Symphony Orchestra, and appearances at 4020 Festival (Austria), Meloslogos Festival (Germany), Hermes en- semble (Belgium), Heidelberg Festival (2017 and 2021), Babylon Orchestra (Germany), Hypercube ensemble (USA), Oxford Lieder Festival (England), Hope Ensemble (France), and SIPA festival (Indonesia). She has mastered a range of musical genres, from classical to film and background music, and she has experimented with different ensemble forms, such as solo, chamber, and orchestral.

Nina Barzegar

Nina Barzegar is an Iranian composer, pianist, educator, and actress. She writes music in diverse styles and for various mediums including contemporary music, compositions based on Iranian classical music, and music for film and theater. Since she came to the United States in 2020, Nina has collaborated with such great performers and ensembles as Yarn/Wire (based in New York), International Contemporary Ensemble, and Del Sol Quartet (based in San Francisco). She has her master’s in composition from the University of Tehran and is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Nasim Khorassani

Nasim Khorassani is an Iranian composer and a Ph.D. candidate in music composition at the University of California San Diego. Nasim’s music takes various approaches to visuality, emotional connection, and language. A mainly self-taught composer, Nasim started composing at the age of eight. Her works were not performed in Iran until 2016, when she moved to the United States. Since then, her works have been performed by No Exit New Music Ensemble, Del Sol String Quartet, Patchwork Duo, Zeitgeist, OCA- ZEnigma, and Loadbang. While in Iran, she created and organized a group of music students that were the first Iranian group to receive the DAAD Study Visit scholarship (2009). Nasim has founded a free, online music academy, MMCiran, to support Persian students, which is now known as MOAASER.

Niloufar Iravani

Niloufar Iravani is a composer of acoustic and electroacoustic music. She has received prestigious commissions from the League of American Orchestras and the Louisiana Music Teachers Asso- ciation and awards such as the first prize in the Southeastern Composers League 2018 Philip Slates Memorial Competition. Her music has been presented at diverse venues by distinguished artists and ensembles, and she has published several of her works with Con- ners Publications. Niloufar has served as an adjudicator for the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States National Conference and a reviewer for the International Computer Music Conference. She received a bachelor’s in piano performance and a master’s in composition from the University of Tehran, and a master’s and Ph.D. in composition from Louisiana State University.

Anahita Abbasi

Anahita Abbasi was born and raised in Iran. In 2005, she moved to Austria and pursued her undergraduate degree at the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz, where she studied music theory with Clemens Gadenstätter and Christian Utz and composition with Beat Furrer and Pierluigi Billone. She also worked closely with Georges Aperghis, Franck Bedrossian, and Philippe Leroux. Abbasi has lived in San Diego, California, since 2014 and is finishing her Ph.D. in composition at the University of California San Diego under the supervision of Rand Steiger. Her music has been described as “a dizzyingly sophisticated reverie, colorful and energetic. It embodies tremendous timbral exploration and multilayered performance gestures.”

Mina Arissian

Born in Tehran, Mina Arissian is an Iranian pianist, composer, and educator. She learned piano at an early age. She received her master’s degree in composition at the University of Art in Tehran. After she earned a postgraduate degree in composition from Komitas Conservatoire in Yerevan, Armenia, with Professor Mikhail Kokzhayev, she studied piano pedagogy at the University of Ottawa in Canada. She has performed in various solo and ensemble formations as a composer and pianist. Her music has been performed in Berlin, Moscow, Yerevan, and Tehran. She also was a guest composer at the Tehran Contemporary Music Festival in 2017 and 2018.



I Care If You Listen

Compelling and deeply touching, with grace and passion in equal measure, Sirventès is a collection of six works by members of the Iranian Female Composers Association. Curated by cellist Brian Thornton, the album (out April 28 on New Focus Recordings) features performances by members of The Cleveland Orchestra, Callisto Quartet, cellist Amahl Arulanandam, and percussionist Nathan Petitpas.

The album opens with Mahdis Golzar Kashani’s And the Moses Drowned (2017), a lamenting string quartet dedicated to the memory of the children who were killed in the Syrian war. While primarily mournful, the piece also celebrates what the liner notes call these “lighter souls,” seeking not to define them solely by their passing. Beginning with a series of striking chords, each more grief-stricken than the last, the quartet quickly turns to melancholy before gradually developing in rhythmic vigor and building with fervor to a climax. But instead of resolving, the music pauses; we are treated to a long, searching violin melody over a pedal tone in the cello, interrupted by echoes of the earlier rhythmic material. It’s a gripping moment in a piece that is acutely engaging, both in message and musical content.

Nina Barzegar’s exquisite Vulnerable (2018) opens with quiet murmurs, delicate pizzicato chords, fragile harmonics, and marked silences — moments of conspicuous absence that hold both stillness and tension, broken only by sublime intonations from the solo cello. As the title suggests, this is a vulnerable moment for both the cellist (Thornton) and the composer, who must trust each other when the material is so direct and sparse. They succeed breathtakingly here. The pacing of the development is also phenomenal, never letting go of your attention as the material evolves. Barzegar leaves much unsaid in this emotionally complex work, but, in that choice, succeeds in finding expression, connection, and richness beyond words.

Nasim Khorassani describes Growth (2017) as “a cell constructed by B, C, D, and E-flat, growing and expanding,” in her notes. A teeming, shifting texture full of trills establishes a cloud of sound with little ideas periodically jutting out as the four-note cell develops into elaborate counterpoint, almost reminiscent of Mahler or Shostakovich. Growth eventually contracts back into itself, ending pointedly with a pizzicato chord made of the original cell. Melding process and intuition, the piece imparts a tragic foreboding in its extremely well-paced seven minutes, with enough time to explore its concept without overstaying its welcome.

The three movements of Niloufar Iravani’s The Maze (2017) are all distinct in character, with convincing performances by Callisto Quartet. “Energetic” is a fun, engaging movement, with active rhythms and imitative counterpoint developed from the Phrygian mode. “Lyrical” features more contemplative imitation; set in the octatonic collection, the long melodies are searching, reaching out and questioning their surroundings. “Mysterious,” meanwhile, takes cues from Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, with moments of rhythmic intensity interspersed with calm.

The album’s title piece, Anahita Abbasi’s Sirventès provides a welcome contrast with percussion and an extended acoustic palette for the cello, featuring scratching, harmonic glissandi, and other effects that explore the sonic possibilities of the ensemble. There is a personal and sincere feeling in Sirventès’ closeness; every sound, gesture, and moment is indispensable. The dialogue between cellist and percussionist is treated with ritualistic purpose in the ways they come together and apart, agree and disagree, and ultimately find a sonic, and seemingly physical, closeness. Arulanandam (cello) and Petitpas (percussion) bring Abbasi’s work to life with exemplary care and grace.

The final work, Mina Arissian’s Suite for Cello (2020), takes the long tradition of the cello suite as its seed, but that’s not to imply the work is antiquated or has nothing new to say. While the first movement is slightly drawn out, the phrases left unfinished make the intention unmistakable: a question prompting you to think about what might be. The second movement is beautiful, with interesting melodic turns and a hopeful, yet tentative approach that speaks to the heart. The third movement balances feelings of excitement and worry, which creeps back into the ending, coloring the final moments.

Sirventès is dynamic and cogent, with emotional intensity to spare. The performances and production quality are impeccable, with every detail rendered clearly and precisely. Throughout, the thread of each composer’s identity is felt — but, more powerfully than that, what each of them wants to say is vividly painted with brilliant artistry.

— Sofía Rocha, 4.26.2023