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NSO crosses over with Hussain “India” concert

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In Friday’s Washington Post:

Tabla meets West as NSO’s “India” concert seeks crossover convergence, by Anne Midgette.

I’ve written quite a bit before about crossover projects. 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. It’s yielded the Silk Road Project, which has turned out to be a fertile lode for talented young musicians pushing beyond the conventional boundaries of a classical career (Brooklyn Rider, one group that came out of that project, is playing in DC on Saturday night). A whole cadre of Chinese composers -- Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Bright Sheng, and many others -- have worked traditional Chinese elements into Western composition; the New York Philharmonic has played pipa concertos.

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.

What are your thoughts on the attempts of Western orchestra to explore other musical traditions? What makes it work for you, and what makes it fail? Are there any examples of interesting crossover projects you think more people should know about?

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