Mahsa Vahdat (center) in a performance with Kronos Quartet. (credit: Evan Neff)

Kronos Quartet, Mahsa Vahdat lead an exotic Islamic musical journey

Mark Gresham | 16 SEP 2019

Kronos Quartet returned to Atlanta this past Saturday evening for a concert at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts with Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat. The program, entitled Music for Change: The Banned Countries, offered up music from Muslim-majority countries as a direct creative response to the 2017 U.S. Executive Orders targeting citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, restricting travel access to the United States. Kronos’ introduction to the printed program booklet states their position that as “a cohesive force that doesn’t heed or recognize borders, music provides an irrefutable response to those seeking to divide and demonize people.”

To make its social and political statement, the intermission-less concert, which lasted a little over an hour and a half, drew from music of composers, popular culture and folk-traditions of Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Nubia (a region, not a state, located along the Nile river between Aswan in southern Egypt and Khartoum in central Sudan), Palestine, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.


Those premises acknowledged, the more immediate question for the concertgoer is: What can the listener make of the music and performance on their own terms, without the socio-political baggage? The fact is that the music speaks for itself compellingly. The variety of repertoire was notable even as it exhibited a perceptible, but hard to describe kind of commonality; although the cultures of those various lands and peoples — far more ancient than their Islamization — exhibit their own diversity of cultural identities. The latter is especially observable when their music is given the closer scrutiny it deserves — something hard to fulfill within the confines of a single concert.

Kronos’ performance was exemplary. They remain the quintessential post-classical string quartet. They performed the larger part of the program before being joined by soprano Mahsa Vahdat for the Iranian music segment at its end. An astonishing number of the pieces required one or more of the Kronos members to play percussion. The progress of performance was contiguous, with the group moving directly from one selection to the next without stopping for applause – with a few instances where audience felt compelled to clap anyway. Their formal place to stand and acknowledge an ovation came just before the introduction of Vahdat.

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Vahdat has a lovely, liquid and expressive voice. It’s a shame that she is no longer permitted to perform publicly in her homeland, thanks to the laws of post-revolutionary Iran. That is the Iranian public’s unfortunate loss. Hers is a voice that one could easily listen to for much longer than her performance on Saturday allowed. ■

For more in-depth insight about the program’s background and premises, read Andrew Alexander’s interview of Kronos founder and violinist David Harrington, published September 10 on this website.