Their chance meeting set in motion what would become the I = I collective’s mandate; that music can break down barriers that generations of propaganda and palpable threat of war had cemented.

The Concert Hall had lost power.  And while many producers might not have kept their cool, especially first timers, Dan Deutsch, founding member of the Israeli-Iranian Musical Initiative, came out on stage and created an intimate and informal environment.  As if at a dinner party, the audience reacted accordingly.  Toronto’s Alliance Francaise hosted this very special evening, the inaugural concert of the Israeli-Iranian Musical Initiative, on March 31st.  The Toronto Symphony’s Shalom Bard conducted.  Three new pieces written by the I = I Collective were the foundation of the concert.  Guest appearances by noted Persians, kamanche player Saeed Kamjoo and tar player Shahin Fayaz punctuated the Converging Paths concert.  Iranian Parisa Sabet, Israeli Dan Deutsch and Canadian Noam Lemish created I = I in 2013.  But the seed germinated in a synchronistic meeting at a University of Toronto social for new students, in the doctorate program for musical composition, a year earlier.

Coming from environments thick with hateful rhetoric, the last thirty plus years fuelled by shifting alliances, a proxy war and threat of nuclear destruction, the idea of friendship between people of these two countries seemed far fetched.  Sabet, from Shiraz, Iran had been in Toronto for a month, while Deutsch, fresh from Jerusalem had been in Toronto for only two weeks.  Their chance meeting set in motion what would become the I = I collective’s mandate; that music can break down barriers that generations of propaganda and palpable threat of war had cemented.

Parisa recounts the initial meeting with Dan, “It was a new environment and you’re looking for someone to connect with.  He was the one.”  Once the formalities passed, Dan mischievously remarked, “You know, we are enemies.”  Laughter broke the tension, but the statement carried gravitas.  It was the first Israeli Sabet had ever met.  In a day and age where an off the cuff remark or the “wrong” friendship can land a family member back home in jail, or worse, the friendship may not have moved forward had music not been safe and common ground.

Dan quickly invited Parisa and her husband to join his wife and him for dinner.  “The food reminded me of home,” said Parisa.  “The table was full!  We were comparing our grandmother’s recipes.  We share so much, our two cultures.”  The friendship flourished and they soon decided to “put on a concert,” says Parisa.  This is where pianist Noam Lemish joins the Collective.  Parisa smiles and says, “Dan’s and my English wasn’t that great.  Noam’s was.  And… he could write the grants!”  Lemish is also a DMA candidate, in jazz performance at the University of Toronto.  His dissertation focuses on “Israeli jazz” as a case study for musical “transculturation” in contemporary jazz practice.

All three have impressive credentials:  Lemish having composed a multicultural suite in celebration of the King of Bhutan’s thirtieth birthday in 2010.  His most recent album, Nightfall, a collaboration with percussionist George Marsh, was released in July 2013.  Parisa Sabet, also a pianist, is the recipient of a 2013-2014 Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Canada Graduate Scholarship.  Her research focuses on indigenous music by women from Iran.  She’s been writing an original composition related to this theme.  It is one of her hopes that upon her return home, men and women will be able to perform this on the same stage together.  Saxophone player Dan Deutsch has performed at the Knesset, the Kremlin and Albert Hall.  His doctorate research focuses on the relationship between Gustav Mahler’s symphonic works and his status as a Jew in Vienna during the Belle Epoque.

In spite of the weighty subject matter, all three are incredibly warm and open.  Dan introduced the program, three new pieces with three different approaches, styles and traditions.  Lemish’s Bakesh “Shalom Ve’rodfeyhu”, translates to Pursue Peace, is composed for clarinet and string quartet.  We sat in the dark during the first movement, while the strings gently supported the clarinet.  It evoked images of a young child playing on a kitchen floor while the curtains billowed in a summer breeze.  As the musicians lowered their instruments, the power came on, to a round of cheers.  The second movement was more frenetic; the stings like fighting siblings.  The clarinet jumps in like a mother breaking them apart, eventually appeasing them.  Things calm down.  The third movement had plaintive feel about it.  The clarinet painted a sepia memory while the strings came in with an urge of longing.  There is a feeling of a faded recollection, a sense of a past love.  There is anticipation and expectation.  The youthful musicians played the essence of the piece with depth and emotional maturity.

Montreal transplant Saeed Kamjoo and Shahin Fayaz (“all the way from North York,” jokes Dan Deutsch) next took the stage.  The musicians keenly watched each other as the kamanche and tar carried on a lively conversation.  The river of music seemed to transport Kamjoo and Fayaz into distant, inner worlds.  Both gorgeous instruments, not common in Western composition, the kamanche looks like a wooden banjo, but sounds like a violin.  It sits on the musician’s knee and is played with a bow at the base of the fret, but above the rounded body.  The tar, looks like a figure eight shaped mandolin, but sounds similar to a sitar (at least to this Westerner’s ear).

Parisa Sabet stood, arms protectively wrapped around herself in the back of the theatre as her piece, “Bamdad” (Dawn), played.  She captures the conflict and chaos of the Iranian-Israeli conflict.  Written for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion, Shalom Bard conducted.   Like breaking glass, the piece crescendos, and the flute tentatively flies in like a lone bird trying to find sanctuary.  The clarinet emerges, vying for position to be heard.  There is a standoff between the two instruments and the cello appears as the negotiator.  Coming from a place of trying to find empathy and commonality in the midst of each other’s grief, Sabet’s Bamdad captures this poignantly.

“Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring The Winter Garment of Repentance fling.”  Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat filled Dan Deutsch’s heart and head, translating into the piece that next treated the audience.  Three Movements Inspired by Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat , written for piano, flute, violin, clarinet and cello, evoked Pan and his fawns emerging from the forest.  The first movement was truly playful, while the second movement had a more thoughtful feel.  Perhaps a sense of guilt or regret; two people skirting around an apology.  The third movement had the return of the mischief makers.  “Look to the Rose that blows about us… Lo, Laughing,” she says, “into the World I blow…”  The ghost of Nijinski seemed to peer from behind the stage curtains.

“What every Iranian wants to hear at a concert,” stated Noam Lemish, bringing  Saeed Kamjoo and Shahin Fayaz to the stage to play a traditional Iranian folk tune.  Played in a jazz improve style, it had the audience grooving in their seats; people were bopping around.  The musicians were obviously having a great time, and Dan added as the audience erupted, “Thanks a lot, it’s a lot of fun!”  The last piece brought every musician up on stage, including Parisa, who played piano alongside Noam.  Called “The Flute of David”, this 16th century piece comes out of a Latino tradition from Spain.  Composed by David, an Iranian Jew, who was a favourite in the Spanish court of that time, was the perfect way to end this magical evening.

Juxtaposed between Norooz, the Persian New Year (translating into new day or daylight), and the Jewish holiday, Passover, the collective told me that Converging Paths wasn’t scheduled because of these two events.  Rather, Dan was expecting the birth of his first child, (who recently made his debut this past month); the group wanted to have the concert before he was born.  It somehow seems appropriate that the birth of a child would harbour the birth of hope from a new day.  The I = I Collective is already in pre-production for their second concert in November.  Bookmark it in your calendar and come join the conversation and celebration!