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Final Chord For Iran's National Orchestra


Members of the Iranian National Orchestra perform in Tehran in a 2010 ceremony marking National Nuclear Day.
Members of the Iranian National Orchestra perform in Tehran in a 2010 ceremony marking National Nuclear Day.
In the latest setback to Iran's distinguished cultural scene, the country's National Orchestra was declared "abolished" this week by its members.

Orchestra members did not reveal the exact date of the closure, but told Iran's semiofficial ILNA news agency that they had neither rehearsed, performed, nor received their salaries for the past three months. Many said their contracts had expired and were not being renewed.

Iran's semiofficial Mehr news agency, meanwhile, reported that members of the state-run orchestra had lodged formal complaints with the authorities.

The government has yet to formally comment on the issue.

The Netherlands-based Radio Zamaneh reported that government officials had refuted reports of the closure. Officials insisted that the national orchestra was being brought under one umbrella government organization along with the separate Tehran Symphony Orchestra, which is not under direct government control.

Financial difficulties have been widely reported as the reason for the closing of the National Orchestra, which performs only traditional Persian music. Mehr quoted officials as saying there was simply "no budget" to keep things running.

Iran's current financial woes are well-documented and blamed in part on government mismanagement and crippling international economic sanctions. The value of the country's national currency has slipped to record lows, while prices for food and fuel have surged to record highs.

Losing A Founder

Jane Lewisohn, a specialist on Iranian music at the Center for Iranian Studies at the University of London, says there is no blanket answer for the closure. She has not ruled out other explanations, including that it could be part of a wider government effort to rein in cultural institutions.

Such institutions have a history of criticizing the regime, which has put them under suspicion and led Islamist leaders to bill them as liberal-leaning and sympathetic to the country's opposition. Recent tensions between Tehran and the West over Iran's nuclear development program have further complicated the situation.
A founder of Iran's National Orchestra, Farhad Fakhredini, resigned in 2009, reportedly in outrage at the postelection crackdown.
A founder of Iran's National Orchestra, Farhad Fakhredini, resigned in 2009, reportedly in outrage at the postelection crackdown.

The National Orchestra's founder, renowned Iranian composer Farhad Fakhredini, resigned from his post in protest in 2009, 11 years after he founded it with the support of the Culture Ministry.

According to reports in Iran, Fakhredini refused to perform concerts in Tehran at the request of the government after widespread protests and a police crackdown following the contentious reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Fakhreddini said at the time the situation in Iran was "incongruous for listening to music and performing a concert."

No Easy Gig

Lewisohn says working conditions for Iranians working in the arts and humanities remain extremely tough.

Musicians, for example, often receive minimal salaries and have to work second jobs to supplement their earnings. On top of that, she says, there is growing censorship by the government, which means musicians, artists, and writers often publish their work underground and at their own expense.

Lewisohn, however, says those conditions are nothing new, and she notes that Iranians have become "geniuses" in adapting to the changing political environment in the country. Amid an unprecedented economic collapse, Lewisohn says, there is a need to adapt again.

She says Iran's private sector, particularly wealthy Iranians, must begin funding cultural institutions -- beginning with those national establishments whose funding has been slashed, such as the National Orchestra.

Declining government funds for the arts is not restricted to Iran but is also evident in the West, where private individuals, trusts, and foundations help fund the arts.

"This is an opportunity for the private sector to come in," Lewisohn says. "[Cultural institutions] shouldn't wait for the government to support it. They can't sit around and wait for the government because it's not going to do it -- it will die out. If they really care about it, then they have to get up and do it themselves."

Hard-Liners Hits

In the early years following the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, religious hard-liners attempted to ban all forms of music before eventually backing down. Conservatives have said music, especially Western music, undermines Islamic values. In 2005, Ahmadinejad tried in vain to ban Western music on state-owned television and radio stations.
The Tehran Symphony Orchestra performing in February 2012
The Tehran Symphony Orchestra performing in February 2012

By extension, the Tehran Symphony Orchestra, an 80-year-old institution that performs Western music, has also angered conservatives. The symphony orchestra, which is the oldest and largest in Iran, has come under repeated verbal attack, not least because it has roots with the Western-backed monarchy that was overthrown in the revolution.

In 2009, the symphony orchestra was condemned by Islamic authorities after opposition supporters used concerts during a European tour to denounce the clerical regime. During their performances, many concertgoers reportedly displayed the green scarves and headbands that became symbols of the opposition Green Movement.

Other sectors of the arts and culture scene have also suffered. In January, Iran's Culture Ministry closed down the House of Cinema, the country's leading independent film-promotion institute. The government has accused the film industry of sympathizing with the opposition.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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