Ajoy Chakrabarty

Indian Summer

September concerts, including one this weekend, showcase the role of the human voice in Indian music

Two recent concerts of Indian classical music—one presented by Kalakendra, the other by Dance Mandal and Michael Stirling—made a good contrast in listening experiences. One was a family affair, local vocalist Stirling accompanied by his friend Joss Jaffe on tabla and his daughter Lucy Stirling on tambura, all in a cozy little Buddhist temple off SE Hawthorne run by Nepalese dancer Prajwal Vajracharya.

The other was more like a pick-up basketball game: Kalakendra’s latest concert at the Old Church, starring sarangi player Pankaj Mishra, santoorist Chiradip Sarkar, and tabla whiz Abhishek Basu. The three musicians exuded a vibe that was polite and friendly but far from warm and familial. Their aura was all about showing off and one-upping each other, the kind of competitive spirit you hear in the old jazz supergroups.

Both concerts featured music inspired by the human voice, though only one had an actual singer. And there’s another Indian classical music concert coming right up here in Portland—it’s tonight, in fact, at First Baptist—and this show features not one but two vocalists.

Singers Are Queens and Kings

After asking the room of twenty or thirty serenely enthusiastic audients to silence their phones and “live without electronics for a little while,” Michael Stirling praised the vocal traditions of India, saying, “singers are Queens and Kings.” He told the audience that when Ali Akbar Khan was teaching at his college in San Rafael, he would bring his sarod to class only on Fridays; the rest of the time, it was singing lessons. Even in the context of Western music, Stirling’s affinity for vocalizing goes back to college: his bass teacher once told him sing along while he was playing, a recommendation which he initially found ridiculous but came to enjoy.

Stirling gave a brief description of tala, comparing the Indian rhythmic cycle to a wheel, with the individual beats as the spokes. He asked Joffe to play a standard tintal pattern and began tracing a circle in the air, saying “one” every time the pattern arrived back on the downbeat—beat one, or sam, “which is the most important thing.” Stirling followed that with a brief explanation of the tambura his daughter Lucy was busy tuning, demonstrating its four strings and describing its function as the keeper of the tonic note, sa, which is the melodic/harmonic equivalent of the rhythmic sam (read more about all this here). Together, sa and sam represent home base: Everything Is On The One. At this point, Dance Mandal founder Prajwal Vajracharya arrived, Stirling said “just on time!” and an audient whispered “he arrived on the one!”

Jaffe, Stirling & Stirling performed at DanceMandal. Photo: Prajwal Vajracharya.

Stirling started with two late afternoon ragas, Bhimpalasi and Madhuvanti. “Madhuvanti means honey,” Stirling explained; “it also means love.” It’s an unusual raga, part of the Multani family, a little like a Western melodic minor but with a raised fourth to give it an expressive, conflicted aura. The two ragas complemented each other well, sharing some melodic features—most notably the vadi on pancham (scale degree five) and a sugar-sweet shuddha dhaivat (that major 6th) that Stirling squeezed thoroughly in Bhimpalasi and gently in Madhuvanti. That pancham was especially exciting: it’s the fifth scale degree, and a lead character in the harmonic overtone series. There’s a sort of acoustic vanishing act that singers with a fine sense of intonation can achieve with perfect fifths—like the Buddha who is said to be able to exist and not exist according to will, a power the gods themselves envy. Hearing it in person never fails to delight.

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MusicWatch Weekly: centennial celebration

Symphonic tributes to composer/conductor/crossover king Leonard Bernstein and other American sounds highlight this week's Oregon music scene

Has any musician ever had a year like Leonard Bernstein did between November 1943 and December 1944? The 25-year-old wunderkind won national fame for fill-in conducting the New York Philharmonic on short notice in a nationally broadcast concert from Carnegie Hall, conducted the premiere of his first symphony and the recording of his scintillating first ballet, Fancy Free (which the New York City Ballet premiered that year and which Eugene Symphony performs in November), wrote a hit for Billie Holiday, and saw his first musical open on Broadway. Whew!

That debut musical, On the Town, is best known for “New York, New York, a hell of a town,” but the rest of the score sparkles just as brightly. On Thursday at Eugene’s Hult Center, its dance episodes open Eugene Symphony’s season-long celebration of Bernstein’s centenary, which orchestras and ensembles throughout Oregon and the world are also honoring this year.

Leonard Bernstein

The rest of the program is equally compelling. Shostakovich’s magnificent fifth symphony was a Bernstein fave he did much to popularize in the West, and Lenny recorded Ernest Bloch’s popular cello concerto Schelomo (King Solomon) twice. The Swiss-born composer wrote his “Hebraic rhapsody” in 1916, just before he moved to the US (where it premiered), long before he settled in Agate Beach in 1941. (He died in Portland in 1959.) Soloist Julie Albers stars.

The Vancouver Symphony’s opening concerts Saturday and Sunday at Skyview Concert Hall also laud Lenny with excerpts from his great stage scores Candide and West Side Story. Tchaikovsky Competition gold medalist Mayuko Kamio stars in another American masterwork, Samuel Barber’s vibrant Violin Concerto. The show opens with a low-blowing new piece the orchestra commendably commissioned from a local composer: one of its bassoonists, Nicole Buetti.

Inon Barnatan performs with the Oregon Symphony

This weekend’s Oregon Symphony concerts at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall feature the world premiere of 27-year-old Katherine Balch’s whispery Chamber Music, which deploys a variety of percussion instruments along with the usual strings and winds to create, she says, “a very intimate, intricate music intended for close listening and made among friends.” One of Joseph Haydn’s popular “Paris” symphonies, nicknamed “The Hen” because of some clucked-up first movement violins, offers another chance to hear the orchestra excel in the magnificent music of a composer whose symphonies have become one of its specialities. Aaron Copland’s Jazz Age Piano Concerto followed Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto into then-sketchy (for symphony orchestras) jazzy territory. Nearly a century later, it sounds like a lot of fun, and a sleek vehicle for excellent Israeli-born pianist Inon Barnatan before the concert arrives at its final destination: Brahms’s mighty fourth symphony.

A highlight of last week’s OSO concerts was a new work by one of America’s most appealing living composers, Kevin Puts. His Beethovenian 2007 Trio-Sinfonia highlights Saturday’s Chamber Music @ Beall performance by the excellent Eroica Trio at the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall. They’ll also play Bach’s famous “Chaconne” from Partita in d Minor; the equally famous Adagio in g minor by 20th-century musicologist Remo Giazotto still infuriatingly and falsely attributed to Tomaso Albinoni by record companies, program writers and classical music announcers who should know better by now, and Mendelssohn’s c minor Trio.

Earlier that day and not far away, at their free show at Eugene’s Hope Abbey Mausoleum, Ensemble Primo Seicento (three singers and historically informed instrumentalists on harpsichord, viola da gamba, and cornetto) sings and plays music by Sigismondo D’India, Legrenzi, Sances, Riccio, Benedetti, Barbarino, Corradini, Merula, Hume, Cima and of course Monteverdi himself.

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