DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – It was a VIP audience for what was likely the last performance of the venerable Tehran Symphony Orchestra. Watching from the front row in late August was Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in what was seen as an endorsement from the ruling theocracy, which once tried to stamp out all music as a violation of Islamic values.
Just two months later, the musicians are out of work, funding has run dry and a nearly 80-year-old institution that survived wars, coups and the 1979 Islamic Revolution was declared Tuesday in an apparently irreversible "coma" by media.
The apparent tipping point was financial. It could be counted as collateral damage from Western sanctions that have left Iran's economy so stressed that authorities are considering banning exports of staples such as rice and wheat in order to boost emergency stockpiles.
"We are currently facing a financial drought," Parliament speaker Ali Larijani told a group of officials Monday. "We will have a more difficult year ahead."
The full story of the orchestra's demise likely runs deeper. In a time of escalating showdowns with the West over Iran's suspect nuclear program, the opposition of Iran's clerical leadership toward anything deemed as too Western is gaining strength.
"Musicians have had no support in recent years," said Saba Radman, a music journalist and critic. "They feel very disillusioned."
The Tehran orchestra — by far the oldest and biggest of several concert hall-style ensembles in Iran — was often an easy target of hard-liners because of its roots during the era of the Western-backed monarchy toppled by the Islamic Revolution. During its heyday in the 1960s and 70s, it hosted performances by world famous musicians such as violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin.
The orchestra fell further from favor during a European tour after the riots triggered by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009. Opposition supporters in Europe used the concerts as forums to denounce Iran's ruling system and flash the green wrist bands and scarves that symbolized the protest movement.
Meanwhile, Islamic conservatives — including forces within the powerful Revolutionary Guard — have reclaimed influence since the widespread crackdowns on reformists and can even exert muscle over Supreme Leader Khamenei. Cultural groups outside direct state control, such as the Tehran orchestra, have often come under suspicion as potential liberal-leaning havens. In January, authorities closed down the House of Cinema, an independent film group that operated for 20 years.
"Many concerts have been canceled by local authorities over the past years, but the Culture Ministry raised no objections," said Radman.
Hamid Shahabadi, the deputy culture minister in charge of artistic affairs, acknowledged some delays in payments for musicians while insisting that the orchestra has not been disbanded, but he indicated that its musicians need to look for work elsewhere.
He suggested some could be absorbed into a planned state-run institution that would oversee all remaining orchestras. Those concentrate heavily on traditional Persian music.
Iran's Islamic authorities tried to ban all music in the early years of the Islamic Revolution, claiming it violated strict Muslim tenets. The clerics eventually relented, but, as recently as 2005, Ahmadinejad tried unsuccessfully to outlaw Western music on state-run television and radio.
At the same time, the Tehran Orchestra performed Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 — drawing criticism from some conservatives because the piece was associated with liberals and secular groups during the early years of the Islamic Revolution.
A year later, it brought more grimaces from Islamic authorities for its program in Germany that included Tchaikovsky's Overture to "Romeo and Juliet" and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony — with a snippet of "Dog Breath Variations" by American rock impresario Frank Zappa slipped in.
In late August, the orchestra may have played its last piece — the Iranian national anthem — at the opening of the Nonaligned Movement summit, which Iranian officials billed as a world gathering to challenge the economic pressures of the West over Tehran's nuclear program.
Orchestra members told the semiofficial ILNA news agency Monday that they have not rehearsed together or been paid for three months. An experienced musician may receive just 6 million rials, or less than $200 a month at the current exchange rates — below an average taxi driver's pay — and must supplement income through other performances or professions.
"Many (Iranian) artists are working as taxi drivers, office secretaries and accountants" rather than focusing on their profession, singer Fazel Jamshidi was quoted by the semiofficial Mehr news agency.
Arsalan Kamkar, a violinist in the orchestra, told The Associated Press on Monday that "only seven or eight members of the orchestra have valid contracts. Unfortunately, the rest have not had contracts over the past months, and it seems unlikely their contracts will be extended."
Kamkar said the shutdown highlights the dislike for Western-oriented culture by Iran's rulers, who are also sitting on one of the world's prized collections of European and American modern art.
In August, the Museum of Contemporary Art displayed about 100 works purchased by the late shah and his family — including pieces by Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Jasper Johns. But most of the collection — works by Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon and many others — remains in vaults and basement storage.
Karimi reported from Tehran, Iran.