Monday, April 23, 2012

Indian Percussionist Masters the Tabla with Indian Art Form, Mesmerizes Western Audiences

(March 21, 2012 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, CA) There is a reason why stages featuring the beautiful art of Indian classical music usually have their seats filled with a monotonously brown audience. Steeped in hundreds of years of local and regional traditions, the scientifically artistic sounds of Carnatic percussionists, sarangi musicians, dholak performers, doyra masters, and tabla phemons do not immediately translate well for American or Western audiences. Then again, when you have a legendary tablaist in Zakir Hussain and an equally apt team of jaw-dropping master percussionists performing in a Walt Disney Concert Hall filled with a crowd as diverse as it was on March 21st, struck is a perfect harmony of hyper-focused Indian culture and universally palatable ears. His brother, Fazal Qureshi, and six other artists here joined Mr. Hussain at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown Los Angeles on March 21st, with collectively more than 1,000 spirited souls at the acclaimed percussionist’s first West Coast stop on his 17-city, 30-day North American tour. In his approximately two-hour adventure through the sounds of one of India’s most beautiful instruments, Mr. Hussain did what he traditionally does whenever performing Stateside: he presents an art form deeply rooted in Indian culture that is ultimately appreciated and respected by a diverse yet inclusive audience. Indeed, Mr. Hussain may be tabla’s greatest ambassador, using his tremendous mastery of the ancient craft to build musical bridges that connect India to the West and beyond in such a way that makes it appear as if such bridges were existent for generations. It was in this spirit that Mr. Hussain presented the latest iteration of the Masters of Percussion tour, with the legendary musician bringing his brother and wife along to add a new nuance to a traveling show that has recurred steadily since 1996. A virtuoso performance that was as delicate as it was mesmerizingly powerful, Mr. Hussain did more than give full meaning to the phrase “Masters of Percussion.” By the time audiences filed out of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, he demonstrated how his artistic and technical skill is savvy enough to not only define a cultural genre, but also compellingly entertain individuals who may come into any venue he headlines, armed with nothing more than cursory knowledge of his musical repertoire. Beyond Mr. Hussain’s own individual mastery of the cultural art form handed down to him from his father, Ustad Alla Rakha Khan, the 61-year-old tabla player skillfully interacts with his audience and stage mates all at once. Indeed, the finale performance featured every musician on stage, each rising to the maestro’s challenge with articulate grace. Preceding the climactic finale was an affectionate interplay between two siblings, as Mr. Hussain and Faizal Qureshi engaged in a tabla duel of sorts. Indeed, the duo captivated the audience with a mesmerizing back-and-forth highlighted by Mr. Hussain’s mastery of a perfectly pitched bass melody with the occasional comedic twist via the "William Tell Overture." While Mr. Hussain clearly set the tone, the evening was not all about him. The audience was welcomed back from its intermission break with a dynamic performance from a duo clearly not to be confused as Batman and Robin. (That’s a good thing, no offense to my DC Comics brethren.) Navin Sharma and Abos Kosimov charmed the audience with their respectively sweet renditions of the dholak (the two-sided drum popularly seen in Punjab) and doyra (a frame drum). Collectively, both Sharma and Kosimov escalated their respective performances to levels rarely found in any music circle, delightfully entertaining the audience with such classy and fun energy that may only be rivaled by an outdoor jazz show or a late-night drum circle in the alleys of New York City or the streets of Berkeley, California. Mr. Kosinov earned a near deafening applause when he effortlessly simultaneously played three doyras. Not to be overlooked were the soothing sounds of Rakesh Chaurasia’s bansuri flute, which intertwined with the harmonious beats of Sabir Khan’s sarangi. As they joined forces later in the second half, both Khan and Chaurasia were so effectively calming with their contrasting yet unifying performances, an audience full of rattlesnakes could have been charmed into a nirvana-like state. Engaging the audience to clap along in unison to the beat of his own drum, T.H.V. Umashankar demonstrated why he is one of the most acclaimed artists of the South Indian classical percussionist movement. Emphatically beating on his ghatam, which resembles a clay pot, Umashankar was as playful with the audience as he was worthy of its undivided attention, with his ability to elicit harmonically pitched beats from an instrument least likely to be noticed as one. The audience was left yearning to see more of Ningomban Joy Singh, who intermittently presented slices of his high-octane dancing drummer performance. Dedicated to the beautiful Indian traditional folk dance form of Manipuri, Singh demonstrated remarkable athleticism in turning a percussionist performance into a visual delight. Speaking of dancing, Mr. Hussain’s wife, Kathak dancer Antonia Minnecola, added another layer to the Los Angeles show that some audiences, along Mr. Hussain’s North American tour, will not be able to enjoy. In portraying the Indian art of storytelling – Kathak derives from the Sanskrit word katha, which means ‘story’ – Ms. Minnecola recited a small slice of the mythological story of Ramayana, where the Lankan Lord Rama kidnapped Goddess Sita and engages in a battle with a bird (later blessed by Lord Krishna). Whether it was a segment of storytelling, a duo engaging in an enthralled back-and-forth, or an epic solo by the headlining maestro himself, Zakir Hussain and the Masters of Percussion turned the Walt Disney Concert Hall into a vaulted room full of awed connoisseurs who had no desire for the house lights to fully turn on…ever. If there was a moment of sustaining fleeting escapism in the name of an artistic performance touching one’s mind, heart, and soul all at once, it was captured on March 21st at the Frank Gehry-designed concert hall. The remaining audiences for Mr. Hussein’s tour are in for a euphoric treat. Link:

Drummer Tony Marsh Passes Away in London

British Drummer Tony Marsh passed away from cancer on 9 April in London. Marsh was a familiar presence on the London improvised music scene, performing in a renowned trio with saxophonist Evan Parker and bassist John Edwards at venues such as the Vortex, and regularly participating in collaborations at Café Oto and elsewhere with improvising musicians of the highest calibre. Marsh played with Shabaka Hutchings and Guillaume Viltard in a trio at Café Oto in January, and in March at the same venue with Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Roscoe Mitchell and John Edwards. Marsh first emerged in the 1970s with the jazz-rock group Major Surgery, before moving on to record and perform in the 1980s and 1990s with musicians and acts such as Mike Westbrook Orchestra, Howard Riley and Harry Beckett. As a drummer, Marsh was well known for technical sophistication and for conveying a wellspring of emotional depth with his playing, whilst being respected amogst percussionists as a collaborative improviser of almost unparalleled intuition and empathy. Marsh’s funeral is being held on 23 April, in the City of London Cemetery. Link:

Levon Helm: The 2007 Fresh Air Interview

Levon Helm, the longtime drummer of The Band who backed Bob Dylan and sang with Van Morrison, died Thursday after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 71. When The Band was backing Dylan in 1965, Time magazine described the combination as "in some ways the most decisive moment in rock history." The Band went on to record its own highly influential albums Music From Big Pink and The Band in 1968 and '69, before splitting up in the mid-'70s. After The Band, Helm began working on his own solo efforts and toured with a variety of musicians, including Ringo Starr. After taking time off to battle throat and vocal-cord cancer, Helm reemerged in the late 2000s. In 2007, he released the album Dirt Farmer, which received the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album, as well as many accolades from music critics. The Washington Post called Dirt Farmer "an exquisitely unvarnished monument to Americana from a man whose keening, lyrical vocals have become synonymous with it." After Dirt Farmer, Helm performed solo and with other musicians, and also continued to dabble in acting. (He'd played Loretta Lynn's father in the biopic Coal Miner's Daughter and had a part in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.) Helm also began presiding over monthly concerts in a barn on his Woodstock, N.Y., property, which he called "Midnight Rambles." The first featured a performance from blues legend Johnnie Johnson, and later brought out musicians such as Emmylou Harris, Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello. Helm appeared on Fresh Air twice, first in 1993 and then again in 2007. link:

How Filming/Streaming Opera Is Changing Opera

If pictorial reproduction can be traced to founding and stamping in Ancient Greece, textual reproduction to the printing presses of the Middle Ages, sound to the recording experiments of the late 19th century and the moving image to a few years later, then opera – that messy, mongrel art form – is finally having its moment. Walter Benjamin’s influential 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” debated the consequences of mass reproduction in the wake of a great flourishing of film and photography, and his ideas held their relevance throughout the 20th century. However, although sound and video recordings of opera performances are nothing new, it is only in the past few years that technology has brought us something close to a true reproduction: high quality sound and visuals and, crucially, the potential for live relay. High quality global journalism requires investment. Please share this article with others using the link below, do not cut & paste the article. See our Ts&Cs and Copyright Policy for more detail. Email to buy additional rights. The Metropolitan Opera was the first to forge the way when, in 2006, the company began to broadcast live screenings of New York matinee performances (a timing that suits European audiences well but makes reciprocal arrangements more difficult) and it has proved lucrative. Net profits for this season of HD cinema screenings were expected to be between $10m and $12m. This has given the company a strong global presence, but UK and European opera houses and concert halls have begun to address this imbalance. The Berlin Philharmonic orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall is screening 30 live performances this year and Royal Opera House’s 2011-2012 season includes five live cinema relays. Meanwhile, Glyndebourne has entered into a partnership with Picturehouse Entertainment, which will screen performances in more than 50 cinemas across the UK, and renewed its partnership with the Guardian newspaper to live-stream opera on its website. Since its founding in 1934, Glyndebourne has embraced new technology and the wide reach that it has offered; the festival’s inaugural production, Le nozze di Figaro, was recorded by The Gramophone Company, and two years later BBC radio broadcast a live recording of Don Giovanni from the opera house. In 2007 Glyndebourne became the first UK opera company to screen into cinemas, and it has continued to develop its digital presence, responding to a wide range of incentives. “I think the driving forces have changed,” says David Pickard, Glyndebourne’s general director. “Ten years ago it was very much the intention that we would film as much as we could, on the basis that if we had the rights to that material, there would at some point in the future be a secondary stream of income – and indeed that’s still the case,” he explains. “But the technological world is so different and now, equally important, there is this fantastic way of simply getting our work out to a broad audience.” Previously, opera companies would sign up to TV broadcasts of their productions as and when producers showed interest, and in doing so they would relinquish their rights to that material. Glyndebourne productions cost between £150,000 and £200,000 to film and these costs are recouped through TV broadcasts (last year’s production of Handel’s Rinaldo, for example, was screened on BBC4 last month) and ticketed screenings. Having made the recording, Glyndebourne can then use clips and trailers as part of its promotional material, and show whole films as part of its touring programmes. The Metropolitan model shows that opera screenings can make good business sense, but what about the artistic implications? Melly Still, who is directing this season’s curtain raiser, a new production of Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen, admits she was sceptical of the trend at first but says “the results are always incredibly positive and I think they really generate the live art experience”. She learned of Glyndebourne’s summer screening plans having already conceived of the overall vision for her production, but I ask whether she will adapt her approach to stage preparation and rehearsals, knowing the results will be scrutinised by zoom lenses. High quality global journalism requires investment. Please share this article with others using the link below, do not cut & paste the article. See our Ts&Cs and Copyright Policy for more detail. Email to buy additional rights. “I haven’t thought about it,” she replies. “In terms of scenery, we’re not trying to evoke realism or naturalism. There’s a kind of poetic truth to it but we’re not trying to say ‘this is a forest’. And in terms of facial expressions, I always demand and insist on absolute truth in character and relationships, so if that helps in terms of the screen, then great.” Whatever the attitude of opera directors, filmed opera productions do place greater demands on the performers: not only do they have to sing, and often dance, to an extremely high standard but their acting has to withstand the hard gaze of cameras. It can only make the audience experience more interesting, but it would be dangerous if film directors (more egos in an already potent mix) begin to dictate what happens on stage. Laurent Pelly, who is directing a new double-bill production of Ravel’s L’heure espagnole and L’enfant et les sortilèges at Glyndebourne this summer, thinks this unlikely, but he acknowledges that film directors have the power to make or break an opera recording. “Film and opera directing are completely different skills and professions, and it’s a question of finding a way for the two to coincide and work together,” he says. “The most important thing is the spirit of the production, and the positioning of the cameras is very important. A badly positioned camera can destroy the whole thing.” The showing of a filmed opera can seal its critical fate, and I ask Pelly if an awareness of this longevity adds to the pressure of his work. “Not really, it’s just a risk of the profession,” he replies. “To have great success on DVD is good but something that’s less successful will be forgotten about, it will disappear. The DVD will live on, it will remain on the shelf, but nobody will buy it.” The flip side, of course, is the growing archive of stage work, and one can only wonder at the thousands of productions that have been lost to history – their only legacy a handful of dusty props or the odd makeshift recording. Benjamin argued that the “aura” of the original work of art declines as a result of mass reproduction but wrote of the freedom that comes with its destruction. There will be some who lament the loss of opera’s “mystique” – buffs who boast of risking bankruptcy to watch Domingo perform live, or about how marvellous it was to witness Sutherland’s Lucia that mild May evening back in ’73 – but the plus sides of live screenings far outweigh that cost. “I think all opera companies suffer because of a certain level of misunderstanding about what we present, because a lot of people don’t know what we do,” says Pickard. “And if this is the start of a greater understanding, and therefore a greater interest, which will lead to more people attending live performances, then that’s good for everyone.” In 1923 the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham warned that concert halls would soon be left empty “if the wireless authorities are allowed to continue their devilish work”. Yet there’s still no sign of that happening. Despite all the recording innovations of the last 100 years, people are still drawn to the actual event: the atmosphere, the sense of occasion, the close proximity of the performers – and the risk of it all going wrong. Glyndebourne Festival opens with ‘The Cunning Little Vixen’ on May 20 Link: