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(Photo credit: Danylo Bobyk)

World Premiere of Iman Habibi's "Shāhīn-nāmeh"

As the 2022 laureate of the Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music, Habibi's new work was premiered at the Azrieli Music Prizes Gala Concert


The 2022 Azrieli Music Prizes (AMP) Gala Concert, in Montréal, Canada, recently featured the world premiere performances by the 2022 AMP laureates, Iman HabibiAharon Harlap, and Rita Ueda.

Established in 2014, the competition is comprised of three categories: The Azrieli Prize for Jewish Music, The Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music, and The Azrieli Commission for Canadian Music.

The prize for each of the three categories includes $50,000 CAD, an AMP Gala performance of the work, and a recording on the Analekta label.

The Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music went to Iman Habibi, who wrote his piece "Shāhīn-nāmeh" for the occasion. Here, it is premiered by the Orchestre Métropolitain, conductor Alexandre Bloch, and vocalist and setar player, Sepideh Raissadat.



The Violin Channel had a chance to learn more about the work from the composer himself...


VC: What was your idea or inspiration behind the work?

Iman Habibi: My piece, Shāhīn-nāmeh, started with a concept. As a non-Jew proposing a project to the Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music, I was searching for the connection between my Persian heritage and the Jewish one. I didn't have to dig too far to find the incredibly rich culture of Judeo-Persians, and in particular, the poetry of prominent Judeo-Persian poet, Shahin Shirazi, which beautifully ties stories from Torah together with characters from an iconic Persian epic, Ferdowsi's Shahnameh. Much of Shahin's poetry remains unpublished in Persian script, and is only available in Judeo-Persian which, while in the Persian language, uses a variant of the Hebrew script. As such, this poetry is inaccessible to most Iranians today.

Through this piece, I wanted to highlight the rich shared cultural heritage that has existed between the Persians and the Jews. I also chose the story of Queen Esther for this piece, as it further highlights the interconnectedness of our cultures, and shows that Persian kings, throughout the millennia, have protected the Jews and helped them settle in Jerusalem.



Why did you decide to apply to the Azrieli composition competition?

The Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music is open internationally to people of all races, and backgrounds, and is among the top composition prizes in the world, and the largest of its kind in Canada. Naturally, it has been on my radar for years. I was particularly interested in the prize this year, as it provided a rare opportunity to write a large-scale work for one of Canada's finest orchestras. I am honoured to be among the recipients this year.


What was your compositional process? How do you take a piece from an idea in your mind to a full-fledged score?

I spent several months researching the text, and learning how to read the Judeo-Persian script letter by letter, so I could read more of Shahin's poetry. The story of Queen Esther (set to 9000 verses of poetry by Shahin) is a complex and layered one, and despite this being a larger orchestral commission (about 25 minutes long), I realized that it would be impossible for me to tell the story in its entirety.

I chose scenes and snippets from this story, and decided to write a multi-movement work. I also decided to write for a vocalist trained in the Persian classical style.  Persian music is mostly an improvised tradition, and uses a different tuning system not fully presentable using equal temperament. The orchestra and soloist have different ways of approaching the music, different ways of hearing the music, and different ways of learning it. Part of my challenge in this piece, then, was to bring two completely different musical traditions together.



What do you hope listeners will take away with them upon listening to the piece?

I hope listeners approach the music with an open mind and with open ears, and be ready to discover something new and different. I hope that the music moves them and provokes thought.



How did it feel hearing your work performed at the Azrieli Gala in October?

Wonderful! Both Orchestre Métropolitain and the soloist, Sepideh Raissadat, gave memorable performances. The hall at Maison Symphonique is magnificent and sounds great. It is also wonderful to have a highly-professional video and audio recording of the event done and presented by Medici TV that I, as a composer, can reference later.

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