Music and Beyond: Constantinople concert series searches for musical inspiration under different skies

Kiya Tabassian. Photo: Michael Slobodian

Kiya Tabassian is a musical explorer and an explorer of music. His journeys take him back in time and around the world in a search for inspiration for his ensemble Constantinople.

That search often produces a range of concerts and this fall and winter, his group will perform four times in the atrium of the Ismaili Imamat building on Sussex Drive near the National Gallery of Canada.

Each concert will feature music based on a different tradition. The first event will feature a performance with the world-renowned Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, who is known for his own work and for his work with the Silk Road ensemble founded by the cellist Yo Yo Ma. Tabassian and Azmeh met a few years ago in Amsterdam.

The concert will feature Tabassian and Azmeh at the start playing improvised music based on Syrian traditions. The rest of Constantinople will join them to complete the show that is inspired by the many influences that have come together to create Syrian and Middle Eastern music. The Constantinople concerts will also take place in Montreal, Toronto and Quebec City.

Tabassian said in an interview that he started Constantinople almost 20 years ago when he was a student in the Montreal conservatory of music.

Tabassian was studying Persian classical music and playing the Persian setar, a lute-like instrument. He had come to Canada from Teheran at age 14 with his parents.

While a student at the conservatory, “I discovered some manuscripts from the medieval and Renaissance periods of western music. I was astonished that 600 year old music was still around. I could read this music and try to connect with that time through the music.”

That eureka moment started him thinking about exploring early music in an ensemble and Constantinople was born.

“Music is a world language that anyone can connect with and take what they want from it. From the beginning,” he says, “I wanted to create a physical and metaphysical place to meet and work with other musicians and explore this music.”

The other concerts in this series will feature Estonian, south Indian and Persian music.

For each show, Tabassian says he prepares by delving deeply into the traditions.

“The more you explore, the more you want to go deeper. I am always looking for original manuscripts. I have to touch all those things.”

The performances are a mix of original compositions, arranged pieces and traditional pieces all based on musical traditions.

The players use instruments that may not seem that familiar. These include the kanun and the viola da gamba. 

At 41, Tabassian has been considering why he does what he does.

“When I was a kid I was very attracted to music. I grew up in Iran during the war with Iraq. At 14, I moved to Montreal from Teheran. When we arrived I didn’t speak English or French. I had to learn those languages. I learned French first. I was also playing setar and I wanted to pursue my studies with the setar and with Persian music.”

His family found a teacher in Ottawa of all places and for a year or so Tabassian was often in town practicing with his teacher, Kayhan Kalhor, who will pay in the final concert of the Constantinople series.

Kalhor moved to New York after a year and Tabassian was left to practice on his own.

Today, after all the hard work he has put in, he is thankful to have come to Canada.

“I know that if my parents had decided to move elsewhere, I wouldn’t be the same musician. Canadian society has something very special. We have an open society in the real sense of the word.”

Today he travels the world from his base in Montreal hoping to open up eyes about less well known  musical cultures.

“I am from Persia and my colleagues are from different places. We are bringing forward musicians from Syria, Persia, Estonia and southern India to the hearts and to the ears and minds of people the beauty of the world.”

Playing in the Ismaili building is another introduction of sorts.

“It’s a beautiful building. As musicians we like playing there. It’s a place people may not know about or don’t think to go there.”

The Four Skies, Four Seasons concert series
Where: Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat building, Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat, 199 Sussex Dr. Sponsored by Music and Beyond

Under the Syrian Musical Sky
Oct. 15 at 7 p.m.
With Kinan Azmeh

Under the Indian Musical Sky
Feb. 18 at 4 p.m.
With Shashank Subramanyam (Indian flute)

Under the Estonian Sky
April 9 at 7 p.m.
With Maarja Nuut (vocals and violin)

Under the Persian Musical Sky
June 10 at 4 p.m.
With Kayhan Kalhor

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.