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PROM 27: Vir, Shankar, a selection of Ragas Ravi & Anoushka Shankar; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jurjen Hempel, Royal Albert Hall, 3 August, 2005 (CC)



Ravi Shankar is a remarkable man. His following is huge, and it is indeed rare to see a Prom quite so packed as this. Even rarer in my experience is to witness a standing ovation – the space does not seem to lend itself to such a reaction, being just too huge. But Shankar received one not only after he had stopped playing but before, too, just for walking on-stage.


I wonder what the same people made of Param Vir's work that began the concert, Horse Tooth White Rock. Vir is Indian (Delhi born, in 1952), so on paper there was no contradiction to a concert that celebrated indigenous Indian music. Yet his work spoke more of Darmstadt than Mumbai. Written in 1994, this was Vir's first orchestral essay and was all the more remarkable for that, but it was not without its problems.


Horse Tooth White Rock is pure programme music, inspired by a Tibetan exhibition held in London in 1992, and more specifically by a series of paintings on the story of the mystic Milarepa. The story involves revenge, murder and eventual enlightenment (the last taking place on the mountain of Horse Tooth White Rock, hence the title). The piece begins with an archetypal modernist explosion of sound, xylophone-dominated, but it is not long before Vir proves he can do quasi-Romantic, too. The Berio of Folksongs I sprang to mind in the extended viola solos, but what really impressed was Vir's ear for sonority. At 24 minutes, the work is too long for its material, however, and Vir's Straussian adherence to his generating story almost seemed too slavish. A kind of Indian Heldenleben with a spiritual slant, it gave the impression of a series of moments of undeniable beauty that did not quite make a cogent whole.


Ravi Shankar's Sitar Concerto No. 1, composed with the assistance of Fred Teague (an American student of Shankar's) is a wonderful vehicle for the many talents of his daughter, Anoushka. Seated on a cloth-adorned rostrum, Anoushka gave a performance of a piece that positively glistened. The orchestral textures ranged from the luxurious to the sometimes frankly mundane, whereas the sitar's contributions are often marvellously free (described in the programme notes as 'essentially improvised' solos). There is also a prominent part for bongos, expertly played by Paul Clarvis (who was clearly having a ball). Each movement is based on a different raga (or Indian scale, but that is a terrifically simple definition. (Click Here for a more detailed description of the rag form.) The highlight of the performance was the rapport between the sitar and the bongos and, indeed, Anoushka's magnificently entrancing playing. As cross-cultural 'experiments' go, this is hugely entertaining. I suspect the simplicity of the orchestra's contributions would pale on repeated hearing, however.


It was the selection of evening (Sandhya) Ragas that made this Prom special. The Shankars were joined by Tanmoy Boyse (tabla) and Nick Able and Peter McDonald (tamburas) for a virtuoso display of what it is that makes Ravi Shankar so very special. His presence is huge and his age showed not one jot in his dexterity (he was born in 1920), while the rapport between father and daughter was evident from the very start. What seemed to happen in effect was Anoushka was putting a metallic gloss on Ravi's extemporisations. The ragas build very slowly (one's sense of time alters as one listens). The exchanges between the two sitarists made jazz spring to mind in its reliance on reactions of the moment when the speed is up, but it was the intimacy of the slow exchanges in the meditative passages that was really pure magic. There exists a clear telepathy between father and daughter. The difference between the players is that, whatever Anoushka's excellence, it is Ravi that exudes seemingly infinite freedom. It is as if his instrument is a natural extension of himself.


It has been a long time since a Prom has had this effect on me. The mixed reactions of the first half were completely erased by 'The Shankar Experience'.



Colin Clarke



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