Pittsburgh pair plans rare trip to Iran for American classical musicians
A composer and nonprofit leader from Pittsburgh have brokered a deal to send American classical musicians to Tehran for the first time since the Iranian Revolution.
The plans for cultural diplomacy were announced as leaders from the United States and other world powers prepare to resume talks this week with Iran on its nuclear program. An agreement that aims to ensure the program does not have military applications could result in Western sanctions being lifted.
“Opening up the cultural interaction between two nations whose governments have been at odds for so long can be a window to hope and peace,” said Iranian-born composer Reza Vali, a Carnegie Mellon University music professor.
Vali and Simin Yazdgerdi Curtis, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh-based American Middle East Institute, said they will travel to Iran with the Carpe Diem String Quartet of Ohio for the Fajr International Music Festival in February.
“This is really a historic deal,” Curtis said.
Vali and Curtis said they began discussing the possibility with Iranian officials in October when a delegation visited Pittsburgh, including Farzin Piroozpay of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The sides reached a tentative deal last week.
In addition to performing on its own, Carpe Diem is expected to play with the recently restored Tehran Symphony Orchestra.
The string quartet will perform some of Vali's compositions from his Calligraphy collection. He said the compositions use the modal system found in traditional Persian music.
Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the American delegation might play another role.
“For Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, cultural diplomacy is a one-way road,” Alfoneh said, referring to Khamenei's past warnings of a cultural invasion from the West and his attempts to suppress it.
“The American composer and the ensemble are therefore likely to find themselves as propaganda tools in the hands of Ayatollah Khamenei rather than representatives of artistic freedom,” Alfoneh said.
Nancy Condee, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Global Studies Center, embraced the planned trip.
“Culture can very often occupy this space of not particularly caring about politics and doing a different kind of communication that has value,” Condee said. “It's able to connect with people and communicate across borders more easily, and it can affect people in very unpredictable ways.”
The accord reached last week by Vali and Curtis follows a visit by Grammy Award-winning jazz performer Bob Belden and his group, Animation, to the annual Fajr festival early this year. It marked the first time that American musicians of any genre performed in Iran since the revolution in 1979.
Curtis tried to arrange an Iranian trip last year for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its last performance in Iran. Logistical problems derailed the plan.
Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or firstname.lastname@example.org.