The Living Traditions series sponsored by the Duke Institute of the Arts is a valuable addition to every year’s concert season. Unfortunately, it seldom gets the audience it deserves, probably because musical taste in the Triangle is still pretty conservative and unadventurous. Attending these concerts is a little like committing to eating at an ethnic restaurant whose food you know nothing about. Last Friday’s fare was a concert of classical Persian music in celebration of the poetry of the Sufi mystic Rumi. And it was no surprise to see the orchestra seats of Page Auditorium nearly filled to capacity with Iranian expatriates.

This concert was to have featured one of Iran’s most famous musicians, Hossein Alizadeh, who has been featured on the Living Traditions series in the past. Unfortunately, fallout from 9/11 meant a snafu in Alizadeh’s entrance visa. So, while the master waited in Paris, his fellow ensemble members, singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian, string player (more on that below) Kayhan Kalhor and drummer Homayoun Shajarian had to continue without him.

We are in no position to write a critical review of the concert, but in the mere reporting of it, there are important issues to be raised, not the least of which is how best to present non-western music to an audience totally unfamiliar with it. On the positive side, the printed program provided excellent program notes describing the theoretical basis of the Persian classical tradition.

Persian classical music is an oral tradition based heavily on improvisation. Students learn from masters through imitation, much as jazz musicians learn their art. The theoretical scaffolding on which this improvisatory style is based is a set of twelve modes or scales called dastgahs , each comprising a different combination of intervals. Each dastgah has smaller melodic motives, or gushehs , which express the musical and affective qualities of the dastgah to which it belongs. A musician must have committed to memory the entire theoretical system of modes and motives before he/she can begin the process of creating music. Most Persian music is combined vocal and instrumental with special emphasis on expressing the text of poetry. A concert often presents music in a single gusheh as in the first half of this program. While hearing all the variations and combinations of a five or six note musical unit, even the uninitiated listener can perceive the musicianship and mastery that go into exploiting it for everything it’s worth.

And that’s where the concert came up short. Here was an entire program devoted to the poetry of one of Persia’s greatest poets and there were no English translations provided of the texts. Even the titles of the numbers in the program were only given in Farsi and transliterated Farsi. As a result, we felt excluded. This concert, co-sponsored by various Persian cultural societies, became a private affair, accessible only to the Iranian community. Of course, you can say that the music speaks for itself, but that’s a cop-out; the combined creation of vocalists and instrumentalists is the music.

In a long introduction, Ellie Valli, a member of one of the sponsoring organizations, expatiated on Rumi’s life and importance, lacing her speech with numerous quotes from the poet’s works. But that was only obliquely relevant to the specific music in this performance.

Nevertheless, whatever the shortcomings of the textual aspect of the program, it was clear that we were hearing first-rate musicians. For us, Kayhan Kalhor stole the show. In the first half of the program he played the kamancheh , a four-stringed bowed fiddle with a spherical wooden and membrane sound box and a long narrow fingerboard. In the second half, he created an entirely new ensemble sound by playing a small lute-like instrument – unnamed in the program. The kamancheh featured complex bowing, while the plucked instrument showed off his impressively nimble finger work.

The Persian classical vocal style is definitely an acquired taste. The sound of the voice is unfamiliar to Western ears. The means of vocal production is different-more throaty with minimum vibrato-with ornamentation consisting of shakes, trills, ululation, etc. Microtonal intervals often make the singer seem out of tune to those accustomed to the twelve equally spaced intervals of the Western gamut. How good Mohammad Reza Shajarian was within the context of this tradition we cannot judge, but the audience was enthusiastic.

Like Indian classical music, a single piece consists of a section or more in free rhythm for vocalist and string player, concluding with a faster section in which the drum makes its appearance. At times, drummer Homayoun Shajarian added improvised vocal counterpoint as well.

A neophyte at Persian classical concerts must learn a new etiquette: the audience stands and claps to greet the musicians before the performance and routinely stands and throws flowers at the end. For this latter purpose, members of the Iranian cultural organizations rushed around Page during intermission handing out carnations to one and all.