Cornish Student Plays With Seattle Symphony

Cornish College of the Arts student Lily Shababi recently participated in Seattle Symphony’s Music Beyond Borders: Voices from the Seven, a February 2017 concert that packed Benaroya Hall and was streamed live around the world. Professor Paul Taub talked to her about the experience and wrote the following article.

When I heard that the Seattle Symphony was looking for musicians of the seven nationalities affected by President Trump’s recent immigration ban, I immediately thought of Cornish student Lily Shababi, an Iranian-American sophomore currently studying violin in the Music Department. I mentioned Lily to Elena Dubinets, SSO’s Vice President of Artistic Planning, and within a few hours Lily had been contacted by the orchestra and invited to play in the Music Beyond Borders: Voices from the Seven concert on February 8. I sat down with Lily a week later to ask her about herself and the experience.

“I was born in Kansas and grew up in Texas, and I’ve studied Western classical music since I was eight years old,” Lily told me. “I came out to Seattle to attend Cornish. My parents were born in Iran, and I’ve been privileged to spend many summers there, where most of my extended family still lives. I learned how to read and write Farsi, and during the summers I spent in Iran, I studied Persian music as well, kind of in a ‘call and response’ style with a teacher in Tehran.”

I asked Lily to describe her current musical activities in Seattle. She is studying violin with adjunct professor Michael Lim (“he is one of the main reasons I came to Cornish”), playing in Orchestra Seattle, a local community orchestra; branching out to new musical genres by playing in Cornish’s Improv Ensemble and Creative Ensemble, and doing an independent study to further her interest in Persian music. She is currently playing violin in an ACT production of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard.

Lily was thrilled to be invited to play in the special SSO concert, a program that was organized on a week’s notice and featured music and musicians from Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Somalia and Iran. “I was on a break at ACT and was checking my email. There was a message from David Sabee, who turned out to be a cellist in the orchestra, asking me if I wanted to play with the Symphony. I had no idea who David was, and my first thought was, is this a joke? But when he explained the details, of course I said yes. It was amazing that the schedule worked out with my busy pit orchestra job. The concert was to be a message of solidarity and community, and the free tickets were all accounted for within just a few hours. Maestro Ludovic Morlot and the SSO Associate Conductor Pablo Rus Broseta were at the podium, and there was only one rehearsal. My stand partner was Artur Girsky, a long-time SSO member and a Russian immigrant. [25% of the musicians in the Symphony are immigrants!] As everyone packed up at the end of the rehearsal, I noticed that all the musicians left their music on the stands, and I asked if it was OK for me to take my parts home, and I spent the night practicing.”

“The music was wonderful," Lily said. "The Iranian pieces were the most special to me. I had heard the music of one of the composers already, Alireza Motevaseli, but Gity Razaz was new to me – a young Iranian composer who recently graduated from Juilliard. She is just so awesome, I’ve been obsessed with her music ever since playing her Metamorphosis  of Narcissus in this concert. Her music isn’t super-directly “Iranian” but it has Persian influences.”

Playing in this program had a profound effect on Lily, both personally and musically. “Obviously I was really excited to play with the Seattle Symphony, playing in an orchestra like SSO is every college violinist’s dream, but more than that! I was amazed at the concept of the Seattle Symphony doing something like this, with such a receptive audience so interested in hearing the music of the seven countries that are being shunned by our own country. The idea of solidarity through music is validated by projects like this. The last I heard, over 100,000 viewed the live stream of the concert; it’s very comforting as someone who has immigrant parents to see that so many people are supporting them. Protesting is one thing, but to see how your art form can have an effect is just so powerful.”

She went on to say, “People in the music world are becoming more open-minded about doing things that aren’t ‘normal’ or ‘typical’ in a symphony setting because people are wanting to hear the voices of the marginalized. In the current political climate so much is obviously going wrong, but in the arts, many people are exploring things that they wouldn’t necessarily have explored before. For me, that provides a space to do what I’m already planning on doing, so it’s kind of comforting.”

I asked Lily how her participation in the symphony project - and being an artist beyond the project - tied into her own personal and political beliefs. She said, “That’s been a big issue for me, a huge inner-cognitive dissonance for me – being a classical violinist and relating that back to its social significance: what am I doing that’s actually impacting people; as an Iranian-American, how am I supporting my community? For a long time I wasn’t able to find an answer to that question. It’s kind of terrifying when you have the realization that you’re playing music by a bunch of dead white guys! That was a problem I dealt with for a really long time. But recently, delving into newer works, into improv, into Persian music, it’s been so helpful to find stuff like that to help me find my place in the musical world. Obviously, I’m not done, I’m still searching – even more! – for what I can do that has social significance. Having the experience with the SSO, it was like combining everything that I love into one experience, I don’t even know how to thank you for turning me on to the opportunity.”

About the author:

Paul Taub is a Professor of Music at Cornish College of the Arts. He also serves as Flutist/Executive Director of Seattle Chamber Players and Secretary of the National Flute Association.