The Spiritual Side of Soprano Indira Mahajan

Mahajan, this year's Marian Anderson honoree.
Mahajan, this year's Marian Anderson honoree.
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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Indira Mahajan, the 2008 winner of the Kennedy Center's Marian Anderson Award, performed an innovative program of songs at the Terrace Theater on Monday night. As a recitalist she had the same graceful stage presence and puissant, amber-tinted voice seen in her appearance as Bess in Washington National Opera's "Porgy and Bess" three years ago.

Mahajan selected songs that were all supposedly performed by Marian Anderson, but that could not be the case for the most interesting and successful set of the evening, four songs from André Previn's "Honey and Rue." (Previn composed this song cycle, on texts by Toni Morrison, for Kathleen Battle in 1992, long after Anderson had retired from singing.) Even in its reduction for piano, the music was a vivid fusion of jazz harmonies and more dissonant tinges. It featured Mahajan's vibrato-darkened tone in its best light, especially in the final song, "Take My Mother Home," sung by a woman who chooses to remain in slavery if only the rest of her family can go home.

That song provided a natural transition to the closing set of traditional spirituals, sung with a refreshing, heartfelt simplicity. Earlier songs worked best when they did not call for too much floating transparency of tone, although it was interesting to hear a more complicated voice tackle three Purcell songs, with the historically informed accompaniment of viola da gamba (Kenneth Slowik) and theorbo (William Simms). Pianist Ted Taylor rose to the considerable technical challenges of the Schubert and Debussy sets and was careful to support Mahajan with plenty of sound at musical climaxes.

-- Charles T. Downey


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