Iman Habibi shapes new music (July 28 newsletter)

Bright hot Saturday morning — we’re sitting under a hickory tree, and we can see clusters of nuts ripening. It’s been awhile since I’ve sat like this on a blanket with a friend, listening to flute music. The winds are rippling upward. We’re at the morning rehearsal at Tanglewood, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra is playing Iman Habibi’s Every Tree Speaks.

Habibi is Iranian-Canadian, born in Tehran in 1985, and already internationally known commissions for orchestras and ensembles across the country. He calls this work Jeder baum spricht, quoting Beethoven, he explains in the program — Beethoven would walk in the woods near Vienna, and in his notebook for the Pastoral symphony he wrote in the margin a note to God — every tree speaks through you.

Habibi wonders what Beethoven would think of the climate crisis today. Sitting out here outside the shed, under these old spreading trees, I wonder how a man born in industrial Bonn would begin to think about our rising temperatures and torrential rains today.

Habibi says his piece is written in conversation with Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony and his fifth symphony, whose opening theme may echo the song of the northern Flicker. Those symphonies were both revolutionary in their time, the Guardian tells me — the Pastoral was the first symphony that had ever drawn scenes in music.

“Before Beethoven, composers mostly wrote music to order, whether for the church or rich patrons …” If they could still “create music that was elegant and profoundly personal, Beethoven was determined to take that idea of creative independence much farther.”

Maybe that independence of mind draws his work and Habibi’s together. Habibi writes that growing up in the years after the Iran-Iraq war, in a time and place where the government restricted music and performance, he studied piano with a private teacher, and he says he loved living with music he felt belonged exclusively to him. It became a place where he could discover sounds and thoughts freely on his own.

It’s quiet here today, and people are listening completely still as the BSO moves into Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. A bird in a branch by the eaves is commenting over the sound of the strings. The music almost floats, the thrum of the timpani, a solo flute … long piano runs smooth as rain.

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