01/28/2008 04:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Serving God and Music?

A significant part of the problem with the use of diplomatic language in news reports is that it tends to obscure facts in an impenetrable linguistic fog. Alan Greenspan, a recent master of this form of non-communication, spoke in riddles in order to "prepare the markets" -- which was itself a euphemism for the concept that those who knew the code could divine its meaning, act accordingly, and thus enrich themselves at the expense of those of us stupid enough to believe that words mean what they say.

Although I doubt that the intention was to obscure, a recent report from the "Art Desk" of The Tehran Times could not have been more clouded in its meaning- - or more ghastly. The report advised that Manuchehr Sahbaii has been appointed permanent conductor of Tehran's Symphony Orchestra. So far so good. It then goes on to state that Sahbaii said that the orchestra "...needs to be reorganized along proper lines and that this requires the cooperation of officials from the Music Office and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance."

The suggestion of the need for reorganization "along proper lines" is difficult to decipher in and of itself. Is the orchestra presently organized along improper lines? Has anyone advocated for organizing an orchestra along improper lines? And is this a matter in which the distinction between an improper organization and a proper one is to be determined by reference to a sacred text or the personal tastes of some imam with budgetary authority?

Although it can be supposed that if great music could be made for decades despite the often ham-handed interventions of the Soviet Ministry of Culture, the involvement of Iran's "Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance" should not present an insurmountable obstacle, I do have my doubts.

In the first instance, it is inconceivable that the guardians of the Revolution and the mullahs calling the shots in the Islamic Republic would permit bare-headed and unveiled women to perform in public. Playing a violin is difficult enough; playing it through a hijab has got to be damn near impossible. A veil permitting the playing of the oboe, horn, trumpet or flute can't possibly be a hijab that would pass muster with the mullahs. So we can pretty much assume that the Symphony Orchestra of Tehran will achieve what the great orchestras of Europe once had and no longer have: An all-male membership. That ought to go over well.

In the second instance, involvement of the "Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance" may have a detrimental effect on repertoire. Liturgical music of any sort is likely to be banned reflexively. So, for example, the bulk of Johann Sebastian Bach's music is gone. The great Requia (Mozart, Verdi, Dvorak), all are unlikely to pass the mullahs' muster. Music by Jewish composers? The standards are likely to be lifted bodily from Dr. Goebbels' index of Entartete Musik (with updating), so we can pretty much assume that Offenbach, Meyerbeer, Krenek, Mendelssohn, Halevy, Mahler and Bloch need not be ordered from the music library. And musicians who adhere to the Baha'i or Jewish faiths are unlikely to be invited to stop by as a guest soloist.

Perhaps it is merely my Western parochialism, but I am hard-pressed to understand how the musical arts - or any art for that matter - can thrive in an environment in which orders must be taken from the "Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance." When music is asked to serve a political or theocratic agenda, what you end up with 100 times out of 100 is agit-prop and not music. Making music is emphatically not the same thing as providing the soundtrack for the continuing revolution. If in doubt, consult the literary output of Dmitri Shostakovich.

Maestro Sahbaii has been quoted as stating that he is also "...intending to assess the members' talents and abilities and discover the orchestra's potential." I wish him the best of luck. It sounds to me as though the orchestra's potential has already been measured.