Growing cultural ties between Iran and Europe were on display on Wednesday night as a French-Iranian conductor became one of the first Westerners to lead the Tehran Symphony Orchestra since the revolution.
Iran's efforts to rebuild ties with the West -- most notably through a nuclear deal with world powers -- have triggered a flood of tourists and trade delegations into the country.
Cultural links are more sensitive but are slowly developing, and Wednesday night's performance of two pieces by Gabriel Faure were thought to be the first time the Tehran orchestra's choir has sung in French.
It marks another step in conductor Pejman Memarzadeh's efforts to connect his Iranian birthplace and adopted home in France.
"I've always been very interested in trying to bring these two civilisations, these two great countries, closer together," the 44-year-old told AFP.
He was speaking ahead of the concert in the 750-seat Vahdat Hall, one of the best-equipped opera houses when it opened during the time of the shah in the 1960s, with only a slightly faded grandeur today.
Musicians of Tehran Symphony Orchestra perform at Vahdat Hall in Tehran on April 19, 2017. Growing cultural ties between Iran and Europe were on display as Iranian-French conductor Pejman Memarzadeh became one of the first Westerners to lead the Tehran Symphony Orchestra since the revolution. (Photo: AFP)
The orchestra itself is celebrating its 80th anniversary, having lived through some dark days, particularly just after the 1979 revolution when much music -- particularly Western -- was banned.
Neglected for many years, the orchestra has seen a revival under moderate President Hassan Rouhani, and while Western pop music is still frowned upon by Iran's conservative authorities, the classics are once again widely taught and practised.
Memarzadeh, who left Iran as a young boy in the 1970s and founded the Orchestre de l'Alliance in France in the 1990s, said part of his mission was to draw attention to Iran's overlooked classical music heritage.
"Iran is a very ancient civilisation with a high level of traditional music in its roots, but people are probably less aware that like other highly cultured countries... classical music has been practised here for a long time," he said.
"There have been great artists, great conductors, great composers. The practice of classical musical is very much alive in Iran."
Shardad Rohani, musical director of the Tehran Symphony Orchestra, said one of Iran's great advantages was the continuing interest of young people in classical music.
"The average age of the orchestra is 25, and I'd say 80 percent of the audiences are young followers. In Europe, it's the opposite," Rohani told AFP.
The talent is homegrown, with many studying at the conservatory across the road.
"One positive thing about the Tehran Symphony Orchestra is they're all Iranians. They all studied here... and that shows that classical music is alive and well," he said.
This is not Memarzadeh's first musical foray in Iran.
In 2002, he led the first performance by a Western orchestra in Iran since the revolution, and last year returned to perform at historic sites including the ancient ruins at Persepolis.
The nuclear deal signed with world powers in 2015 "has helped rebuild trust," he said.
"Artistic, cultural and educational projects are very important because they help remind us of what unites us and what will help us build a better and more constructive future," he said.
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