Friday, March 18, 2011

Rushdie and Sahgal at Kennedy Center

It was a wide-ranging conversation on the role of politics in literature, followed by the Q&A period. I thought the discussion was being recorded and would be posted online, like many other free events at the Kennedy Center have been, and didn't take notes. Unfortunately, this one has not been posted.

What stuck in my memory was Rushdie's trashing of Slumdog millionaire, and also his statement, in response to someone from the audience saying she was from Mumbai, “I am not from Mumbai, I am from Bombay.” How true. I also often say, “I am not from St. Petersburg, I am from Leningrad.”

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Ticket to Bollywood at the Kennedy Center

There were so many people who wanted to see this free show that it was moved to the Eisenhower Theater. When I got to the Kennedy Center at 5pm, the line already stretched all the way through the foyer past the Opera House.

Apparently, popular culture, whether Russian, US, or Indian, is not my cup of tea. It's visually pleasing all right but it is ersatz culture; the real thing is so much better! And the relentless, repetitive annoying beat and deafening volume don't make matters better. In pop music, why is it always necessary to punctuate the beat and hammer it over my head? I can make out both the meter and the rhythm myself; I don't need help, thank you very much. It's like canned laughter in sitcoms: I can decide for myself what's funny, and what's not. Anyway, each genre has its conventions.

Random thought: if Bombay is now Mumbai, shouldn't Bollywood become Mollywood?

Watch Ticket to Bollywood performance.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Turangalîla-Symphonie with the NSO


D. C. public is so funny: the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was half-empty when the NSO performed Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie on Friday evening, and there was quite a few walk-outs. I can't believe that music written in 1948 still seems “avante-garde” to some. Turangalîla-Symphonie is stylistically eclectic: it somehow combines Wagnerian exaltation of mysterious love and Brucknerian seriousness of naive religiosity with the Bernsteinian energy and openness of emotion, plus an almost literal descriptiveness redolent of film music. And yet, all this, quite mysteriously, jells together and works, perhaps due to the Messian's sincere Catholic faith.

It was a joy to see two soloists working together so well: Cédric Tiberghien (piano) and Tristan Murail, who studied with Messiaen (ondes Martenot). Christoph Eschenbach definitely deserves credit for programming this piece.

The Turangalîla Symphony may not be everyone's cup of musical tea. It's long, boisterous, sometimes ravishingly beautiful, sometimes intensely and horrendously ugly. Some impatient audience members have been known to discretely head for the exits during its performance.

That attitude, however, is unfair. The 20th century abounds with examples of music that abandons its audience while favoring a kind of inbred academic experimentation that ignores the audience's need for meaning and human emotion in its music. Messiaen doesn't ignore this at all. But he also refuses to limit his musical palette. His symphony is ultimately an extraordinarily visceral journey through heaven and hell, and the composer seems to be saying, “if the horrors of hell sound like they do in my symphony, so be it.”

Yet on the other hand, after a long, 80-minute journey, the symphony erupts into a celebratory dance of pure joy, love on a human, divine, and epic scale. It's a 20th century masterpiece that’s sometimes a difficult listen, but a challenge that's also worth embracing.

It's also an early and intriguing intersection of ancient, traditional, and modern musical ideas, blending acoustical instruments with one of the electronic instruments that arguably led to the Moog synthesizer and today's ubiquitous electronic effects. It’s the novel experience of listening to a genuinely classical composer who's not afraid to insert modern inventions into his own musical experience.

Such a symphony does need an introduction. Wisely, during this weekend’s concert programs, Maestro Christoph Eschenbach and his soloists will be joined onstage by musicologist Joseph Horowitz at the beginning of the evening. They’ll host a lecture/discussion on various aspects of the symphony before breaking for intermission. The audience will then return to listen to the symphony in its entirety, fully able to discern the twists, surprises, and intellectual challenge that this most cerebral of works has always posed. It should be an interesting weekend.

Ponick, T. (2011), Where Messiaen and Radiohead converge, Washington Times, March 10, 2011.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Evgeny Kissin at the Kennedy Center

  I think Kissin's technique is formidable, and his mastery of a small form is indisputable. What's lacking is a sense of architectonics, an ability to conceptualize and unify a large sonata form. However, the Washington Post's review was rather glowing:

[...] in the much more rarefied playing of Kissin, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society on Saturday afternoon in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The program was more limited in chronological scope, but Liszt's music sounded much more tenderly poetic, as in “Ricordanza” (the ninth Transcendental Etude), and far less saccharine. Even in “Venezia e Napoli,” Liszt's Italianate reworking of Italian composers' themes, Kissin steered clear of the potentially treacly sentimentality of this kind of paraphrase.

[...] Liszt's Piano Sonata, a work that unites many elements of his musical style: the almost keyless ambiguity of the opening theme; the metamorphosis of that theme through variation; extraordinary technical demands, and a seemingly programmatic narrative, in the manner of his tone poems for orchestra. No one knows for certain if Liszt intended the sonata to have a story, although both the Faust legend and the passion of Christ have been suggested, among many others. Kissin gave the work a driven urgency, taking no rhythmic freedom, even in the many astonishing passages in octaves, and achieving a glowing, glossy performance, alternating between sinister and angelic [...]

Kissin's pianism has an awe-inspiring fortitude: the Bellini-esque flourishes of tiny notes given a translucent, pearly sheen and the voicing of inner melodies singing clearly even when the right hand's accompanying pattern was outrageously decorated. Just as his version of the sonata told a more coherent story [...], Kissin evoked the death knell, booming drums and roaring cannon of a funeral tribute to Hungarian patriots in “Funerailles” and the restless peregrination of Senancour's hero in the “Vallee d'Obermann.” Three encores—Liszt's arrangement of Schumann's “Widmung,” the sixth movement of “Soirees de Vienne” and the famous Liebestraume No. 3—were a final reminder that Liszt was no mere showman but a sincere musician who deserves a second look.

Downey, C. (2011) Pianists Andre Watts and Evgeny Kissin offer Liszt recitals, Washington Post, March 7, 2011.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Zakir Hussain and the NSO

From left, Zakir Hussain, Shankar Mahadevan, Kelley O'Connor and Hariharan onstage with the NSO.
© The Washington Post

Orchestras tend to approach crossover in one of two ways: pop-culture crossover (involving video game music, film music, or pop and rock stars like Sting performing with orchestra) and world-music crossover, in which the orchestra explores music of a non-Western tradition. Speaking very generally, world-music crossover tends to be more thoughtful.


The Zakir Hussain concerto the NSO is playing this weekend, however, merges both kinds of crossover: contrasting different musical traditions, and getting a big star to write a piece for orchestra. It's the latter aspect that trips it up. The problem is that it's difficult even for highly talented musicians to write interestingly for orchestra if they aren't trained to do so. Hussain's composition was orchestrated by someone else. I submit that a more successful approach is to have a composer versed in the ways of the Western orchestra sit down with a musician like Hussain and see what kinds of cross-pollination they could create together.

Midgette, A. (2011) Crossover: NSO goes to India, The Classical Beat, March 4, 2011.

Midgette, A. (2011) NSO review: Tabla meets West as ‘India’ concert strikes a crossover convergence, Washington Post, March 4, 2011.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Madhavi Mudgal & Alarmel Valli

Madhavi Mudgal, right, and Alarmel Valli in
Samanvaya: A Coming Together at the Kennedy Center
© The Washington Post

As many Western forms of dance, in their struggle to retain audience interest, ratchet up displays of physical force, it is refreshing to see a pair of Indian dancers who can thrill a crowd with the way they shift their eyes. Madhavi Mudgal and Alarmel Valli, renowned classical dancers and utterly charming performers, kept the audience rapt at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater on Wednesday with subtle drama taken at a leisurely pace in “Samanvaya: A Coming Together.”

Samanvaya is the Sanskrit word for harmony, an idea that Mudgal and Valli made incarnate by combining their dance styles. Mudgal is an expert in the curvaceous, fluid technique of odissi, while Valli is a leading practitioner of the sharper, well-defined movements of bharatanatyam. You couldn't confuse one with the other—Mudgal was the rounder of the two, with a discernibly soft physicality, while Valli possessed a more athletic, reedlike appearance. It's difficult to imagine two more disparate dancers complementing each other so beautifully onstage.

Kaufman, S. (2011), ‘Samanvaya’: Harmony in motion, sealed with a look, Washington Post, March 3, 2011.