Arts, Culture & Media

She was born in Vienna, but she’s Iran’s first female conductor

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Credit:

Courtesy of Nazanin Aghakhani

Nazanin Aghakhani, who became the first female orchestra conductor in Iran, practices with the Iranian orchestra in Tehran.

In June 2009, Nazanin Aghakhani's father was standing in line to cast his ballot in the presidential election taking place in Iran.

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Maestro Loris Tjeknavorian, a well-known and revered conductor and composer, was also in line at the Iranian embassy in Vienna.

The two men started talking and at one point Aghakhani's father mentioned that he had a daughter who was a composer was well. Tjeknavorian asked to meet her and watched videos of her conducting orchestras.

He was so intrigued that he decided to ask officials in Iran to invite Aghakhani to Tehran and arranged a concert for her.

Growing up in Vienna, "the musical capital of the world," as she calls it, it was difficult for Aghakhani not to fall in love with classical music. It was all around her — on TV and radio.

She was born to Iranian parents and visited Iran frequently. "In my heart I feel quite Iranian," she says. Her family always had traditional Persian snacks, including raisins and pistachios on the table. And she spoke Farsi at home. She still speaks Farsi to her son.

Being brought up in an Iranian family meant that she was familiar with the language and culture, but that didn't make it easy for her to conduct an orchestra in Tehran. Aghakhani had only two weeks to work with a group of musicians from the Tehran Symphony Orchestra, to practice, and put on a concert.

"When I go back to Iran, people see me as European, which is quite frustrating," Aghakhani says.

So, there she was, a young woman with a foreign, European accent put in charge of a group of Iranian musicians.

"At first they didn't know how to react to this, but after the first two or three days we connected," Aghakhani recalls.

Overcoming that mistrust was the first step. But there were still more hurdles. When news spread about a woman planning to conduct the Iranian orchestra, hardliners started to chime in. The fact that she was eight months pregnant didn't help.

Hardliners in Iran had never been supportive of classical music. Adding to that, here was a young, pregnant woman about to stand in front of hundreds of people and conduct an orchestra.

Adding to the unease over Aghakhani conducting an orchestra in socially conservative Iran, was uncertainty over the future of the orchestra itself.

"They had quite a hard time at that moment, because the orchestra was facing financial difficulties. They had problems paying their musicians in time. So it was a bit difficult to gather all the musicians and make them believe we're going to do this concert, and this orchestra will survive," Aghakhani says.

But on a hot summer night, somehow, everything came together.

"We had the concert in the Vahdat Hall in Tehran. [It's a] beautiful hall with red velvet seats, looking like the Vienna State Opera. It was sold out, [there were] over 900 people. They were carrying in extra chairs,” Aghakhani recalls.

She says at that moment, as the music filled the air and the orchestra played, she knew they were making history. Unfortunately, as far as Aghakhani knows, no recordings were made.

It was an quite an impressive feat for Aghakhani, but it was an important moment for Maestro Tjeknavorian too.

"For me it was exciting because it’s my duty to support young artists," he says from his home in Tehran. "I was very pleased."

Tjeknavorian says Iran has had female choir conductors before, but no woman had officially conducted an orchestra. But, he says, being a woman wasn't the only reason that made the concert exceptional.

"It's that she is a great musician and conductor," he explains.

Since Aghakhani's debut concert in Tehran, she's stayed in touch with a number of the musicians. Some of them left the country in search of a better life. Others stayed.

“After this concert, I got to hear via emails that some of the musicians found the power and the courage to study conducting actually," she says. "This was something that really made me happy and I felt like I could really move something.”

Aghakhani hopes to one day go back and put on another concert.

"I would love to see the people again and make music with them again. This would be my utter dream. As soon as they would call me or send me an email, I will be there.”

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