Iranian musician brings his culture to Orlando in Philharmonic concert

Orlando Sentinel| Matthew J. Palm: In March of 1988, poison gas rained down on the Iraqi city of Halabja.

The world was slow to react. But Kayhan Kalhor, an Iranian native with Kurdish heritage, remembered.

He composed “Silent City,” a lament for the thousands who died in the chemical attack on the devastated city — mostly Kurds, killed by the ruler of their own country, Saddam Hussein.

“It was a rare example of a time that a leader would bomb his own population,” says Kalhor. “I was devastated. This piece is dedicated to Halabja — and other cities that are not there anymore because of negligence, cruelty, stupidity, or whatever you want to call it.”

His “Silent City” will be the centerpiece of “East Meets West,” the Orlando Philharmonic’s next concert, Monday. In the piece, Kalhor plays the kamancheh, a traditional Iranian instrument that — while unfamiliar to most Westerners — is popular in Middle Eastern music.

A stringed instrument played with a bow, the kamancheh has a range similar to that of a violin. However, it is played upright. Kalhor, a member of acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble of international musicians, recently returned from a 35-performance concert tour in Iran. Known as a kamancheh virtuoso, tickets sold out for the shows in minutes.

As a teenager, he played in the National Orchestra of Radio and Television of Iran. But Western classical music piqued his curiosity and he moved first to Rome, then to Canada to study further. He graduated from Carleton University in Ottawa and now holds dual Canadian and Iranian citizenship, though he lives outside Los Angeles in those infrequent times he’s not touring.

The rise in anti-immigration sentiment in the U.S. troubles him.

“It’s just getting worse and worse,” says Kalhor, 56. “We’re going toward ignorance and aggression, maybe more wars. That’s not normal, it doesn’t really represent America.”

As a native of Iran — one of the seven countries singled out by President Donald Trump on his currently suspended immigration ban — Kalhor can’t help having personal feelings about the situation.

“I’m Iranian, there are more than a half million Iranians living in California,” he says. “We’re successful professionals at every level of society.”

He hopes that a shared love of music might bring people together.

“I have been an ambassador for my culture, especially the musical side of it,” Kalhor says. “I will continue to be that.”