NSO review: Tabla meets West as 'India' concert strikes a crossover convergence

From left, Zakir Hussain, Shankar Mahadevan, Kelley O'Connor and Hariharan onstage with the NSO.
From left, Zakir Hussain, Shankar Mahadevan, Kelley O'Connor and Hariharan onstage with the NSO. (For The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011; 12:58 AM

The National Symphony Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach made about as serious a stab at crossover as an orchestra possibly can Thursday night.

For the first of three programs as part of the Kennedy Center's "Maximum India" festival (through March 20), the NSO offered a Western composer looking East and an Indian composer looking West. It's open to discussion as to how much such an enterprise actually informs us about either India or the West. But when your Indian composer is one of the biggest stars of Indian music and he's writing for other superstars, you're definitely going to bring in new audiences - and they ate it up.

The Indian composer is Zakir Hussain, a virtuoso on the tabla, the articulate Indian drum set that modulates from clicks to strikes to tuned notes played with fingers, wrists, palms and other available parts of the hand.

For his NSO-commissioned Concerto for Four Soloists, which had its world premiere Thursday, he assembled two other big names in Indian music: Shankar Mahadevan, much feted for his work as a film composer and singer; and Hariharan, another film singer who specializes in the traditional sung poetic form called ghazal. The other two soloists were Kelley O'Connor, an American mezzo-soprano, and Hussain himself.

Hussain's metaphorical description of the piece in the program set it up as a kind of shaggy-dog story: "An Islamic sufi, a Hindu priest, and a Biblical preacher embark on a journey together" (the texts, pleasantly and generically spiritual, were in Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu and English). His point was that unexpected points of convergence are to be found on such a journey.

Indeed, all four soloists made that point loud and clear. Hussain and his two compatriots offered an impressive level of virtuosity - the tabla employing a rich vocabulary of sounds and intricate, continually nuanced rhythms; the singers embarking on long improvisatory half-chants, their bodies cupped around a sound that they seemed to be bringing forth with conductor-like gestures of the hands.

O'Connor gamely tried to match the intensity and freewheelingness of the other two singers, her voice dark and direct as a furrow of plowed earth. She and Hariharan, in particular, had a long and intricate dialogue in the final movement, a conversation of two viewpoints now crossing, now converging.

From the orchestra's point of view, though, the problem with this kind of world-music crossover initiative is that the orchestra ends up sounding nerdy. Although Indian classical music represents a tradition as rich and complex as that of Western classical music, it's not a language the orchestra speaks fluently, and it would take a composer more deeply versed in the language of the symphony orchestra to create an equivalent that worked.

As it was, the NSO could engage in mimesis (David Hardy's cello solo at the start of the final movement, echoed by the violins, sounded truly Eastern) and build to a kind of rhythmic froth, but it remained no more than a foil for the soloists. That made for an engaging enough piece - it went down easy - but not a work of deep significance, and one that depends on compelling soloists to function at all.

The first half of the program (which repeats on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.) was occupied with two suites and an aria from Albert Roussel's opera "Padmavati," a heavy-lidded and sensuous piece of French Orientalism so rich that O'Connor's voice in the aria was veritably swallowed up by the eggy music around it. It sounded under-rehearsed, and Eschenbach, usually so open to conveying the spiritual dimensions of a work, seemed unconvinced of this one. The syncopations seemed muddy, entrances were approximate and the music faded away into a silence that, rather than reverent, was simply unexpected.

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