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.
|01||And the Moses Drowned|
And the Moses Drowned
|Katherine Bormann, violin, Alicia Koelz, violin, Eliesha Nelson, viola, Brian Thornton, cello||13:57|
|Brian Thornton, cello||11:21|
|Katherine Bormann, violin, Eliesha Nelson, viola, Brian Thornton, cello||7:10|
The MazeNiloufar Iravani
|Callisto Quartet, Paul Aguilar, violin, Rachel Aguilar, violin, Eva Kennedy, viola, Hannah Moses, cello|
|Amahl Arulanandam, cello, Nathan Petitpas, percussion||9:20|
Suite for CelloMina Arissian
|Brian Thornton, cello|
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, marcjwolf.com
Photos: Roger Mastroianni, DaShaunae Marisa
Text editing: Erin Purdy
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 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 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 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.
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.
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 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 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 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 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 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 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.”
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.
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
The cello also plays a major role, both as a solo instrument and with others, on a New Focus Recordings CD offering six works by Iranian female composers, assembled and primarily performed by Cleveland Orchestra cellist Brian Thornton. Mahdis Golzar Kashani’s And the Moses Drowned is an extended single movement for string quartet, intended as a “cause” piece responding to the Syrian war but interesting to hear without needing to know its provenance. It includes two Largo sections alternating with two Vivace ones, the slower material’s mournful drama contrasting with the faster elements’ strong rhythmic drive. Nina Barzegar’s Vulnerable is for solo cello and is built on contrasts of technique and speed; it is somewhat too stretched-out to be fully effective, but its more-animated latter portions are well-thought-through. Nasim Khorassani’s Growth, for string trio, is textural rather than melodic or harmonic, and uses the interplay of instrumental sounds effectively. Niloufar Iravani’s three-movement The Maze for string quartet (played here by the Callisto Quartet) uses different modes and meters in each movement and comes across as a kind of journey through compositional techniques – in which the finale, Mysterious, is particularly intriguing in its channeling of Ives’ The Unanswered Question. Anahita Abbasi’s Sirventès for cello (Amahl Arulanandam) and percussion (Nathan Petitpas) is a study in sound, using the cello in a percussion context and the percussion to provide structure rather than merely emphasis. It is an interesting aural experiment whose appeal is more intellectual than visceral. Thornton’s cello, absent from the Iravani and Abbasi works, returns for the last piece on the disc, Mina Arissian’s three-movement Suite for Cello. This solo piece lies more naturally on the cello than anything else on the CD, and most fully allows the instrument to express its ingrained melodiousness and richness. A technical tour de force, the work does not sound as if it is trying to transform the cello into something beyond its inherent nature: it allows expressiveness to flow smoothly through multiple emotional peaks and valleys, with Thornton’s elegant phrasing and careful evocation of mood helping the material connect more directly with listeners than will likely be the case for the other pieces heard here.
The profile for this release is one of a kind: new works for cello from Iranian women composers. The cellist, Brian Thornton, who appears in all the solo and chamber works here, is a member of the Cleveland Orchestra, and the album’s title, Sirventès, derives from a genre of sung poems from the south of France—we learn from the program notes that Persia also has a rich tradition of sung storytelling. The six selected women composers are part of the Iranian diaspora, and their reference to internal affairs and geopolitics varies widely in these compositions—the most poignant reference comes in the first work on the program, Mahdis Golzar Kashani’s And the Moses Drowned, which is dedicated in memory of the estimated 25,000 children who fell victim to the Syrian civil war.
But the fraught Middle Eastern context shouldn’t deter the listener, or the collection of unknown names. It is more worthwhile to see this release through two lenses: giving a group of talented women their say, and expanding the repertoire for the cello. To begin with the two solo works, Vulnerable by Nina Barzegar has overlapping connotations. Barzegar writes, “The title Vulnerable comes from the two principal foundations that shape this piece: the vulnerability in Persian music and the vulnerability of human beings.” The music is unusually expressive—keening, tender, inward-looking—and altogether a lovely addition to the repertoire for unaccompanied cello. Pizzicato is used extensively, along with a few more modern instrumental effects.
The other solo work, Mina Arissian’s three-movement Suite for Cello, is biographical, its first two movements taking their titles, “Imagine” and “Dream,” from the composer’s experience during the pandemic year of 2020, which was also her family’s first year of emigration to Canada. “Imagine” repeats an unfinished phrase seven times, Arissian tells us, which “was just like starting to talk but feeling afraid to finish the sentence, or starting a new journey but looking back seven times—not being sure of the road.” The music for “Imagine” is attractive but simple to the point of plainness and offers no technical demands. Personal themes of hope and renewal are appealing, and the music in the two other movements is more varied. The idiom might be a bit basic, but Thornton’s performance makes the best of every opportunity.
Turning to the chamber works, And the Moses Drowned (I assume the title intends for “Moses” to be plural) is a string quartet in four sections, slow-fast-slow-fast with secondary tempos in each part. Kashani’s idiom, which is conservatively tonal, has been enlivened with dance rhythms and harmonic suggestions of the Middle East. She has a gift for shaping a plaintive melodic line and passages of serene reflection. The appeal of folk references is tempered, however, by their tendency to sound like generic music from the Casbah. Overall, this is an attractive listen that benefits from its exoticism.
A second string quartet is Niloufar Iravani’s The Maze, whose three movements—the last one titled “Mysterious”—“depict passing through a maze using various moods and characters,” Iravani writes. As in the majority of the program, the idiom is conservatively tonal, but Iravani skillfully develops counterpoint in the first movement’s Phrygian mode. She moves on to more contemplative moods, still with imitative part-writing, in the second movement, while “Mysterious” has a link to Ives’s The Unanswered Question (suggested by the program notes) in the juxtaposition of suspended time and intense interjections. The quartet is certainly effective and confidently made, but it is hard to escape a certain academic, derivative quality.
The next instrumental combination is a string trio, Nasim Khorassani’s Growth, which at seven minutes is considerably shorter than the rest of the program. It takes its shape from a four-note motto that evolves as it unfolds. Because the notes are so closely related (B, C, D, E-flat), an effect of tight discipline is created, against which there is a texture of restless tremolando. The piece is skillful, tight-lipped, and intricate, reminding me of the first movement of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. There’s a special satisfaction when a musical scheme is this well made and concise.
Finally, the title work, Sirventès, brings new, more evocative sounds in its instrumentation of cello and percussion. Anahita Abbasi’s piece is the only one that explores the novel instrumental sounds of New Music, which are at the core of the dialogue, often quite spare if not on the verge of silence, between the cello and percussion. The blend of scraping, tapping, and abruptly aggressive gestures from the cello is eerie and adventurous, while the percussion effects are as gentle as soft bell tones alongside woodblock and drum. I agree with the program notes (as usual for New Focus, Dan Lippel’s annotation is exemplary) that the two instruments are put on an equal footing, given that the cello is used percussively almost the whole time. I’m not sure, however, that we are getting storytelling as the title implies—this is a varied, often dramatic, soundscape that is quite abstract at the same time.
My response to these six pieces is variable, but not to Thornton’s performances. He is a superb soloist in the unaccompanied works, exhibiting beautiful tone, exemplary technique, and a flair for color and mood. In the chamber works he is modest enough to select pieces that don’t necessarily highlight the cello part, participating in the ensemble to lovely effect thanks to his gorgeous timbre and excellent musicianship.
Other listeners will have their own preferences, and so much is worthwhile about Sirventès that doing some online sampling and selective downloads or streaming will bring real rewards.
— Huntley Dent, 7.05.2023
This disc is produced by the Iranian Female Composers Association, an organization formed in 2017. The disc takes its title from Anahita Abbasi’s Sirventès, which refers to a storytelling tradition in Iran. Originally it referred to satirical or political poems sung by troubadours in southern France, similar to a myth-telling tradition in Iran. Abassi was born in Iran but emigrated to Austria and then San Diego, where she currently lives. The combination of solo cello and percussion is an unusual one, very effective in Abassi’s use of the most delicate percussion instruments.
Much of the music on the program, which has the common thread of including the cello, is associated with a narrative. And the Moses Drowned by Mahdis Golzar Kashani was composed in 2017. Kashani has remained in Iran, unlike the majority of the composers here, although her music is performed in Europe and the United States, and she has won several international awards. The introduction to this work in the booklet is stark: “One in every five fallen civilian bodies in the Syrian war was smaller than the others….” The piece is dedicated to the memory of “more than 25,000 smaller bodies and lighter souls.” Scored for string quartet, the music is a heartfelt and disturbing lament for fallen innocents. Like most of the music on the disc, And the Moses Drowned makes heavy use of modal scales.
Nina Barzegar’s Vulnerable for solo cello also makes considerable use of the modal system. The title, we are told, refers to the vulnerable quality in traditional Persian music and the vulnerability of human beings. Barzegar writes that “Being vulnerable, I do not mean being in a position where one can be hurt easily. Instead, I mean experiencing the great human emotions: feeling shame, sorrow, gladness, love, belonging, empathy, and embracing who we truly are.” Barzegar emigrated to the United States and is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Vulnerable might be my favorite piece on the program. It is very understated and takes advantage of the full range of the cello. Lyrical passages are particularly beautiful.
Growth, a string trio, was composed in 2017 by Nasim Khorassani, who has also moved to the United States. This was the toughest piece for me to get a handle on. The composer’s description is brief: “Growth is a cell constructed by B, C, D, and E♭, growing and expanding.” It seemed static to me, and I found the music repetitive and uninteresting.
Niloufar Iravani’s The Maze for string quartet dates from 2017. Its three movement titles are descriptive of the experience of walking through a maze: “Energetic,” “Lyrical,” and “Mysterious.” The piece is a mini-drama of personal emotion, as the composer describes it. “‘Energetic’ represents the enthusiasm, cheerfulness, and excitement of discovery felt when entering the maze. ‘Lyrical’ reflects the exhaustion and misery felt when facing dead-ends. And ‘Mysterious’ represents the fearfulness and stress upon finding out that there be no way to get out.” Iravani also notes that “Mysterious” is an homage to Ives’s The Unanswered Question. There are moments of real beauty in The Maze, as well as dramatic tension.
Mina Arissian wrote her Suite for Solo Cello in 2020 during the pandemic and the first year of her family’s migration to Canada. The music is both lyrical and contemplative. I have to admit to some confusion, though. The notes say, “The cello piece is in two sections. The name of the first movement is ‘Imagine,’ and the name of the second movement is ‘Dream.’” However, the work is actually in three movements, identified on the cover as I, II, and III. I had difficulty lining up the music with the descriptive note, but I found the piece so lovely that I didn’t care in the end.
The various performances seem committed and skillful, and the recorded sound is well balanced and clear. Especially noteworthy is cellist Brian Thornton, who appears in many of the works here and is a member of the Cleveland Orchestra. I found some lovely discoveries in this release.
— Henry Fogel, 7.05.2023
In 2017, the Iranian Female Composers Association was founded to give voice to this underrepresented group of artists. One of its co-founding composers, Niloufar Nourbakhsh, commented in a set of liner notes that “Personally, as an Iranian woman, I carry a lot of anger with me.” That emotion, as well as so many others, pervade Sirventès, a new album by Cleveland Orchestra cellist Brian Thornton presenting works by IFCA composers. Nowhere are these conflicting emotional territories more succinctly represented than in the alternately heated and chilling Growth. Discussed in my accompanying interview with Thornton, Nasim Khorassani’s trio is a study in several types of expansion, and the trio of string players, from the Cleveland Orchestra, inhabits it with all the requisite fervor and sorrow that could be wished. It’s a kind of minimalism in a new sort of flux, reaching outward from the middle register to grasp at goals almost reachable at the conclusion of its only moderate length. At 2:49, we move downward with muscular ambition, and about a minute later the upper register begins to be explored, but all in the context of a claustrophobic and rhythmically protean series of pitches chasing each other around in heated circles. Given the sudden decrease of rhythmic activity bringing the work to a close, the fact that all matter of expansion seems to be ironic is all the more disillusioning. By way of contrast, Anahita Abbasi’s titular piece brings the musical, cultural, and political spheres together in no uncertain terms. Cellist Amahl Arulanandam and percussionist Nathan Petitpas engage in a partnership meant to evoke the interplay of characters in Iranian myth. Bell ringing and the frame drum evoke, according to the composer, the intimacy of touch, and musically the various shades and degrees associated with that sort of contact become abundantly clear. From the opening’s sweetness to the harshest roils and interactive yawps, vast emotional terrain is traveled. Thornton curates a program of wonderfully diverse music, but his virtuosity is also on display. Mina Arissian’s Suite For Cello provides the perfect opportunity. The third movement is especially beautiful and contemplative, as is the first, but the former’s inter-registral leaps could pose dire challenges to a lesser musician. Thornton is a player of absolute mastery. Everything is in tune but also completely expressive. The piece ends on an uncertain but definitive note, and Thornton executes the seeming contradiction with ease and conviction. It brings to a close an album whose music is as superb as its performances are excellent. Marc Medwin
Cellist Brian Thornton first read about the Iranian Female Composer’s Association in 2017, and now he has curated Sirventés, this superb disc of compositions from the organization. Thornton’s work with the Cleveland Orchestra has given him a platform from which to express long-fostered concerns with various social issues, and this music makes a welcome addition to his discography. The music itself runs the gamut, embracing various tonal and timbral traditions, with much of it in what might be called a post-Minimalist repetitive mode. It’s all gorgeous, ranging from solo cello works to chamber music in various iterations. The playing is as committed as the music is heartfelt, the music often in the more than capable hands of Thornton and other CO musicians. Explanatory notes from the composers flesh out this excellent package.
Playing the Unheard: An Interview with Brian Thornton
By Marc Medwin
If cellist Brian Thornton’s career, nearing three decades, exemplifies anything, it involves that often nebulous but vital place where music intersects with social issues. There is no question about the Cleveland Orchestra cellist’s immersion in what might be labeled as the Western European canon. He teaches, he performs internationally, and his list of premiers is long and impressive. To understand his dedication to tradition, simply listen to his trio of discs for Steinway and Sons to hear his ravishing tone and air-tight grasp of form in chamber music of Brahms and Debussy. However, his versatility and passion go way beyond any prescribed traditions, not to mention transcending both warhorses and platitudes. Broadly speaking, his engagement encompasses issues relating to disability, physical and mental health, gender, sexuality, and race. The Denver native’s formative experience with his teacher, the concentration camp survivor Lev Aronson, whom Thornton met upon moving to Dallas, proved pivotal to his activism, a connection he makes in the email interview he was so gracious to grant. Indeed, Thornton founded the Aronson Cello Festival, its 2022 iteration just having taken place at the Cleveland Institute of Music at this writing. While our focus during the interview is primarily, and understandably, on Sirventès, Thornton’s new disc for New Focus of music by Iranian women composers, the ways in which his various interests connect to this most recent compendium are clear and compelling.
Reflecting on my exchange with Brian Thornton, I kept returning to that space in which music and those forces attendant to it coexist. In many ways, Sirventès, and the musical concerns it embodies, is symptomatic of our turbulent times. Fortunately, individual voices are now not only being heard with increasing frequency but also in the context of the issues they raise, which have traditionally remained disturbingly tacet if addressed at all. What is so refreshing about conversing with Thornton is that he seems remarkably secure as a kind of conduit. I’m reminded of interviews with legendary saxophonist John Coltrane, in which the veteran performer speaks of music as a reservoir into which we all dip, a kind of communal fount of wisdom and experience continually replenished by the sharing of ideas in a space nourished by them. Whether he’s addressing the musicianship of his collaborators or his interactions with the composers chosen for this new and vital recorded offering, Thornton willingly subjects his own aspirations to those in his immediate environment and, by proxy, to intersecting communities forming a larger dialogue. In achieving this, in tandem with his superb musicianship, he shares in that most elusive and important accomplishment he attributes to Lev Aronson on the Aronson Cello Festival homepage. In illuminating hitherto underexplored corners of the literature, he turns darkness into light.
I want to thank you very much, first of all, for taking the time out of what is obviously a very busy schedule to have this conversation with me! Your new disc, Sirventès, highlights works by the Iranian Female Composers Association. I’m certain that Fanfare readers would be curious to know how you decided on this project’s theme and substance.
In 2017, I read about the Iranian Female Composers Association (hereafter ICFA) in a New York Times article and was deeply inspired by the lengths to which they had to go even to have their art heard and experienced. These words continued to resonate long after I finished reading: “[composer and IFCA co-founder] Niloufar Nourbakhsh had the general feeling of ‘growing up in a country that actively veils women’s presence through compulsory hijab or banning solo female singers from pursuing a professional career.’” In my career as a classical musician, my work most often amplifies voices of white, male composers, many of whom have been dead for many years. Thinking about the composers in that article, I wanted to create a project that amplified the voices of living, female artists—Mahdis Golzar Kashani, Nina Barzegar, Nasim Khorassani, Niloufar Iravani, Anahita Abbasi, Mina Arissian—whose work is brilliant and deserves an audience.
Yes, that is an extremely powerful quotation referencing the need for this vital organization. Given the extensive experience in social engagement you’ve fostered throughout your life, it seems fair to say that social/political issues, musical or otherwise, have guided much of your artistic pursuit. How would you say that the issues raised by this new project reflect your overall level of extramusical engagement?
Women’s rights are human rights, and feel like an issue that is under increasing question. I want to be an advocate in whatever way possible—and for me, that is through performance and programming. It is an effort to support that issue in the best way that I know how.
Clearly, especially given Sirventès’ focus, what I’ll call women’s rights are a primary focus for you, especially now. Does your interest and involvement with that particular issue transcend the boundaries of music?
I think that within every art form, there have been women who have been underrepresented, underperformed, and under-appreciated. The music on this album is so beautiful and excellent—and it was composed by members of the IFCA, who have struggled to get their music out into the world.
I agree completely, and the more and sooner those underappreciated and marginalized voices enter the conjoining worlds of interpretation, whether performative, scholarly, and otherwise, the better! Now, shifting our own focus for a moment, I’d be very interested in learning a little more about your musical autobiography. Was there a specific moment in which you understood that your life was going to be dedicated to music?
As a music student, I had the good fortune to study with the cellist Lev Aronson. Mr. Aronson transformed the horrifying circumstances of his early adulthood—laboring as a slave in the Stutthof concentration camp—into a passionate belief in the power of art as a form of personal liberation, even in the face of fascism. Together with my colleagues at the Aronson Cello Festival, I aim to share Lev’s philosophy in my own work. That same philosophy was at work in my impulse to program this album, by amplifying the voices of artists who share their work, even in the face of systemic forces that seek to suppress and silence them.
So here again, and from a different angle, your life’s work and your most recent recording are fundamentally inseparable, so it seems reasonable to return to discussing Sirventès. I notice that you chose to let the composers speak for themselves in the liner notes without superimposing your own points of view. This was an effective programming decision! In this context, I’d appreciate hearing your perspective on this music as music. What drew you to these particular pieces? How do they fit into your own musical aesthetic or predilections?
For the album, I wanted a sound palette that was very broad and could offer something compelling to nearly every listener, ranging from the very modern to music that is extremely accessible. The only constant with the programming is that it all features stringed instruments, and the constant for the process is that all of the musicians are at the top of their profession.
As for my musical aesthetic, it’s very much shaped by my process. Whenever I approach a new piece, I try to approach it with a totally open mind. My hope and aim are always to present each piece of music in the very best possible light I can offer it.
You certainly do that, and it seems to me that an absolutely integral component of your presentation involves your playing! What I’ll call your sound—an extremely clumsy name, I’ll admit—involves what I hear as having an extremely emotional approach. I’m certainly not denying your prodigious technique, but there’s a level of emotional engagement that I find overwhelming. Which cellists, recent or otherwise, have had the most influence or impact on the way you play the instrument?
Thank you for this comment! I think one’s priorities are immediately apparent when performing, or creating a recording. Over the years, I have been inspired by my teacher Lynn Harrell’s use of emotion in his cello playing, and my teacher Lev Aronson’s unswerving dedication to the music. With their examples, I always try to make musical expression my priority.
Now back to Sirventès: In learning and recording these pieces, how much immersion in traditional musics associated with Iran did you have? If so, what forms did it take?
I listened to many Persian instruments on the internet, and read about all aspects of Iranian culture, but I primarily tried to check in with the individual composers as much as I could, so that I could give the proper voice to their compositions. As with any other classical music, it is so important to understand the mindset and the message that the composer wants to portray in their works, and I was lucky enough to be collaborating directly with this group of wonderful composers.
Which of the pieces on Sirventès posed the most significant challenges for you, either in performance or recording? Full disclosure: I’m thinking of what sound like formidable challenges in Nina Barzegar’s Vulnerable, and I’m not simply addressing technical challenges either! Can you speak to the emotional qualities of preparing such a composition for performance?
Specifically for the piece Vulnerable, it was extremely important to have the proper pacing for the emotional content, and have that feeling of gradually scaling, and then descending, a mountain of musical meaning. I also wanted to make sure that the structure of each work was very apparent, as well as the musical meaning, but the most technically challenging work was Growth. This required a very high level of precision focus and concentration throughout the recording process because of its rhythmic complexity, and ensemble playing for the trio. Fortunately, my colleagues on this recording (Katherine Bormann, violin, and Eliesha Nelson, viola) and I are used to performing challenging pieces in the Cleveland Orchestra on a daily basis, so we were able to bring that expertise to this album.
Oh yes, Growth is stunning, and it makes sense that this would be the piece that involved the most varied types of preparation. It’s worth noting here that for her explanation, composer Nasim Khorassani provides the following direct but somehow elusive aphorism:
“Growth is a cell constructed by B, C, D, and E♭, growing and expanding.” Related to this idea of direct ambiguity, earlier you mentioned that you chose the music based on a combination of challenge and accessibility. Assuming that all the works you chose met these criteria, what kinds of things do you look for that define, or exemplify, accessibility? Can you give some examples from the pieces on Sirventès?
I was so excited to put together the album, and there was so much beautiful music to choose from, I thought that I wanted to give an idea to the listeners how far-reaching these compositions could be. The instrumentation is really quite simple, but it ranges from the immediately accessible, such as the solo cello works, to the more esoteric, as in Anahita Ahhasi’s titular work.
Yes, and I suppose that Niloufar Iravani’s The Maze and Mahdis Golzar Kashani’s And the Moses Drowned exemplify a kind of modal accessibility while also engaging with timbral and rhythmic complexities. You know, while the instrumentation is simple, at least on one level, I’m amazed at the kinds of sounds that each of these performers can produce. It’s almost as if the relatively small sonic scale of the ensemble masks timbres as large as the issues that fostered the music itself. How did you choose your excellent performing collaborators on this album?
I chose the collaborators from the Cleveland Orchestra for their musical approach to their instruments, as well as their wonderful personalities. I chose the Callisto Quartet because I know the cellist of the group, and I believed they could do an excellent job representing their piece. For the title work, Sirventès, I checked in with the composer, Anahita Abbasi, as to which performers to engage for that particular piece. These were performers that had performed her work extensively already. As far as our production team, publicist, visual artists, writers and our record label New Focus Recordings, we couldn’t have asked for a more professional, kind group of incredible collaborators.
— Marc Medwin, 7.31.2023
These composers are members of the Iranian Female Composers Association. Cellist Brian Thornton was the principal organizer of the project, and he plays in 4 of the 6 works (cello is heard in the other 2 as well). He is soloist in Nina Barzegar’s ruminative but varied Vulnerable (2018) and Mina Arissian’s Suite (2020), where the composer reflects on her family’s move to Canada. Thornton teams with violinist Katherine Borman and violist Eliesha Nelson in Nasim Khorassani’s Growth (2017), a work built on just four pitches. They are joined by violinist Alicia Koelz in And the Moses Drowned (2017), where composer Mahdis Golshar Kashani expresses anguish over the many children killed in Syrian battles. Callisto Quartet is heard in Niloufar Iravani’s Maze (2017), which expresses emotions that grow anxious when there seems to be no escape. In Anahita Abbasi’s Sirventes (2017), cellist Amahl Arulanandam and percussionist Nathan Petitpas make a wide variety of sounds.