Duluth's Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra set to bridge cultures with new work

Evidence of thawing relations between the United States and Iran will take center stage tonight in, of all places, Duluth. But before the Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra played even a rehearsal note of Hooshyar Khayam's "Kalileh" -- a historic ne...

Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra conductor and artistic director Warren Friesen and Iranian composer Hooshyar Khayam share a hug during a break at a recent rehearsal of Khayam’s piece “Kalileh.” Steve Kuchera /
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Evidence of thawing relations between the United States and Iran will take center stage tonight in, of all places, Duluth.

But before the Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra played even a rehearsal note of Hooshyar Khayam's "Kalileh" - a historic new work commissioned specifically for the local orchestra and its two-night run of puppet-infused concerts - the Iranian composer and Warren Friesen were busy together in the LSCO conductor and artistic director's kitchen last Saturday.

"It's been quite fun," Khayam said. "We cook together."

"And we clean together," added Friesen, opening a back-and-forth exchange between the two men that played out like a routine from "The Odd Couple."

"This is what I'm trying to get him to do now," said the Tehranian guest.


"We have to kind of get it up to his level," Friesen explained. "He's a bit fastidious."

Friesen pantomimed taking a Tupperware dish from the fridge and looked at it curiously, mimicking Khayam when he said, "'This could kill you,'" before throwing aside the invisible container.

"Perfectly good food," Friesen said.

"Yes," came the Khayam retort. "Perfectly good food from one-and-a-half years ago."

"I think he may have a point," conceded Friesen.

Their mutual admiration is deep and still delving with every piece of music and letter correspondence they share.

In Friesen, Khayam has found a seasoned conductor with an untamed heart who is not afraid of taking risks. Friesen is fond of spurning the orchestral culture of pulling classics from the shelf, where the music of "dead European guys" is voluminous but comes too easy for him.

"This is what I like about Maestro Friesen," Khayam said. "He has a different type of spirit."


In the 37-year-old Khayam, Friesen found a budding international talent. Friesen first uncovered Khayam's "Stained Glass" on YouTube. It's a piano and string arrangement that touches the listener with a stunning breath of music that could score epochs or equally mark passing moments in a beautiful day. Friesen found "Stained Glass" while sitting vigil over his dying father and used it to fill seven minutes of the LSCO's 2014 concert series.

"I like world music," Friesen said. "I like giving composers a voice. There are so many people writing beautiful music. If you look hard you might find a few gems."

The encore, "Kalileh," is a 40-minute work Friesen described as genius and "absolutely magical." It marks the first time since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that an Iranian composer living in Iran has been commissioned by an American orchestra.

If it's the music that binds them, then it's the history being made that brackets the duo's connection. They are conscientious of the cultural contribution and are deliberately doing their part to bring contemporary Iranian art back into the Western fold. The BBC has taken notice and is on hand this week producing a piece for BBC Persian Television that Friesen figured had the potential to be seen by 20 million people throughout the Middle East.

"I'm always searching for sort of a higher meaning than only notes to listen to," Khayam said. "The most important ingredient of this collaboration is that fact that it's happening between two countries who have had years of misunderstanding and years of conflict."

Puppet origins

Jim Ouray is the artistic director of the Magic Smelt Puppet Troupe, which will give visual representation to the concerts tonight and Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Marshall Performing Arts Center on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus.

He, too, is cognizant of his troupe's role in bringing together countries that have been disharmonious for so long.


"I'm a news junkie," Ouray said. "It can be upsetting and raise one's blood pressure, but I'm a believer in one guiding principle I heard many years ago: 'The bigger the front the bigger the back.' Whatever's most obvious and in the headlines are the front. Meanwhile, raising children and playing music and sports are the things on the backside we all know about and offer a more rich experience than listening to the news."

Ouray's troupe will use shadow puppets to illustrate the story of the jackal, Kalileh, a Persian fable figure who tries to impersonate a peacock to become more beautiful and more powerful within the animal kingdom.

It was Friesen's fondness for shadow puppetry that set him down the path last October to creating the LSCO's latest show, which will ambitiously feature a youth chorus and a force of musicians that Friesen and Khayam agree will test the upper limit of what a chamber orchestra can be.

"I'm actually very fond of shadow puppetry," Friesen said. "It's an ancient artform practiced in India and China - Jim has studied in Turkey, where they do shadow puppetry - and it goes all the way to Indonesia."

When Friesen asked Khayam if he'd like to set a piece of music to a Persian fable for shadow puppets and chamber orchestra, the immediate answer was yes.

"'Kalileh' is both commissioned from the LSCO and dedicated to the orchestra," said Khayam, who was moved by the orchestra's rendition of his "Stained Glass," believing the orchestra to be one that sought to challenge itself by adding to the literature of music today. "This is why it was for me a very rewarding matter I was commissioned to write this work."

Before reaching the second half of the show and the LSCO's rendition of Khayam's "Kalileh," the audience will be treated to a three-part opening half.

The Magic Smelt Puppet Troupe will make its entrance wearing masks and marching to the LSCO performing ragtime, followed by a frenetic presentation of Don Quixote using rod puppets and, finally, a work by contemporary American composer John Mackey that features a clown stirring up dust bunnies.

A final retort

During a wide-ranging interview with the News Tribune, Khayam described his awakening at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and his penchant for traveling.

"I am a very traveling person," he said, citing New York City, Berlin, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Armenia and all parts of Iran in his travels. "I go to different places; I don't believe in the process of putting yourself in one room and being able to create something worthy of listening to."

He also spoke about being proud of "Kalileh," saying a composer knows he's scored in the way a basketball player knows his shot is true.

"Even just before it's come out of your hand you really know if you've scored or not," he said. "It's exactly the same in composition."

Meanwhile, Friesen won't know until the performance how well his risks have paid off.

"I'm sitting here shaking in my boots," he said.

He could have easily given Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G minor to his orchestra and gone on autopilot himself, he said.

"The orchestra could play it all the way through, but it wouldn't be great," he said. "As a conductor, there, I influence little things: change the tempo, bend the tempo, turn a phrase, adjust the dynamics, define an articulation. But this piece, they would be completely lost without me. There would be no way."

Throughout the discussion, the theme of cleanliness was something Friesen could not escape - in his work or his houseguests, what with the talk of dust bunnies taking over and refrigerators in need of attention.

But it's the ambitious person who knows when to reach for life in favor of fretting over use-by dates.

Their collaboration ripe for the world - and Duluth - Friesen recalled his time as a graduate student at Rice University in Texas many years ago.

"For some reason I was the one they always went to, to conduct new music," he said.

"It's because you're a composer yourself," Khayam said to a blushing maestro.

"Um, a little bit," Friesen said.

Typically, Khayam finished with a flourish.

"I know I didn't write anything easy for you."

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