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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Concert Review: Building Bridges in the Sky

Anoushka Shankar with the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Anoushka Shankar and friend. Photo by Belinda Lawley.
The classical music of India is very different than that created in Europe and the Americas. Building a bridge between its system of ragas, alaps and talas and the Western system of keys, chords and scales sounds like an impossible task. But not for Ravi Shankar, the master of the sitar and the face of Indian music in the 20th century. Shankar did this not once but twice, writing two extensive concertos for sitar and orchestra, a bridge of sound across the gulf between cultures and proud traditions of east and west.

On Thursday evening last week, the New York Philharmonic offered the first of three performances of Mr. Shankar's Rāgā-Mālā ("Garden of Ragas") Concerto No. 2 for Sitar and Orchestra with the composer's daughter Anoushka Shankar as the soloist. This concert was originally scheduled to be led by Zubin Mehta, who commissioned this concerto in 1979 and conducted its premiere in 1981. He withdrew due to illness and Manfred Honeck stepped in as an exceptionally qualified replacement.



As Indian music does not use keys, Mr. Shankar's piece was not written in any particular tonality. Rather, its form was drawn from  raga, a word which translates in to English as "color" or "hue" and much like the medieval modes, is a means of expressing musical ideas through a series of melodies that allow the soloist (usually the sitar) and the percussionist (most often the tabla) to expand and improvise on an idea over a long period of time. Mr. Shankar's concerto left out the tabla, instead placing a huge orchestra and expanded percussion section at the service of the soloist.

Melodic lines for strings, wind and percussion were created using the same principles as melodies for the sitar, building on each other in increased complexity and depth as they awaited the entry of Ms. Shankar. She  played seated on a rug, with one bare foot extended and her gigantic wooden instrument in her sure hands. Its sinuous, sultry tone blended and rose above the sometimes thick orchestral textures. The effect was hypnotic and entrancing, a cross between religious ceremonial and more conventional concert structure, with the chime of an orchestra bell seeming to announce each new melodic idea.

The second, third and fourth movements used further ragas, with a total of thirty different musical ideas forming the backbone of this piece. Orchestra and soloist expanded on the original ideas, causing tectonic shifts in the music when a new raga started. There were also solo passages for the sitar's unique voice, which offered Ms. Shankar room to expound and improvise on the recently played theme, increasing the variety of unusual sounds and expanding the listener's consciousness. Twice, Mr. Honeck whipped his vast orchestra into a firestorm of sound, drawing warm waves of applause at the end of the third and fourth movements.

The second half of the program was more traditional, with Mr. Hoenick leading the orchestra in Haydn's Symphony No. 93. Here, the orchestra was downsized to a chamber-sized ensemble, but the virtuosity of the players and the clear, bell-like textures of the strings were firmly to the fore. The light elegance of Haydn was a perfect palate cleanser to the massive Shankar composition, showing that east and west can coexist in musical harmony, and each movement again drew appreciation from the house.

However it was just warmup for the probing and fascinating reading of the Schubert Unfinished that closed the evening. Mr.  Honeck seemed to take the view that Schubert's piece was complete in its two movement form, and this was a performance of firm structure and musical resolve. Using a hand, he shushed the audience before the start of the second movement and opened the second with the same sense of import and urgency. Eloquent utterances from cello and horn added to the sense of profundity, showing that Schubert's design may have been two movements after all.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.