When you think of “classical music,” do you think of grandparents sitting in concert halls in American cities? In Iran, the Tehran Symphony Orchestra performs music by classical composers—and draws attentive crowds of 20- to 30-year-olds.
“Classical music is growing,” says Iranian-American conductor Shahrdad Rohani. “And as you see, the audience, they are really supporting the arts.” Rohani has led orchestras in the United States and Europe. But he says he is proud of his homegrown crop of young Iranian musicians. He’s leading a movement of interest in Western classical music in his conservative Islamic country. His work has helped carve out a space there for artistic expression. It sends a message too: Both men and women can make great music.
Iran’s Islamic government has put restrictions on artistic expression since 1979. That year marked the Islamic Revolution. The nation’s leader at the time (who held the title of Shah) embraced much of Western culture, but he was overthrown by a strict Islamic religious movement. Pop music disappeared in Iran for 10 years—but began to make a comeback. Even today, however, the government has a religious ban (called “haram”) on female singers performing for mixed (male and female) audiences.
In February, a female guitarist sang a solo during a concert by a pop singer. The authorities cut her microphone and took away her permission to perform. In cafés in Tehran, people listen to women sing, but only in recordings—never live performances.
“Authorities rarely challenge the playing of recorded music in the cafe, and mainly argue about the hijab issue,” says waitress Nillofar Dailami. A hijab is the headscarf all Iranian women are required to wear.
But in the Tehran symphony orchestra, women in burgundy headscarves play cello, harp, and horn. The crowd listens closely, not even coughing. At the end, listeners give Rohani a big round of applause. “I love the work of Rohani,” says concert-goer Ali Reza, 26.
The musicians are Iranian but many have lived overseas. Ed Nekoo is a violinist in Rohani’s orchestra. He spent 10 years in the Los Angeles area but returned to Iran to care for his mother. He says he misses the free cultural exchange between peers. He complains of the lack of foreign music teachers. “We have to learn the music by ourselves,” says Nekoo. Still, he’s optimistic for music’s future in Iran. “Our audience is so young,” he says. “That’s what I like about classical music.”