The smell of incense filled the concert hall and the lights were dimmed and blue. And by the time Ravi Shankar finished his Kennedy Center recital yesterday afternoon, the audience was quite under the spell of his sitar.
The program consisted of two ragas. That much of it sounded familiar instead of jarring is largely thanks to Shankar's own influence on Western music ranging from Stockhausen to the Beatles.The classic Indian musical system encompasses 22 microtones within the traditional octave, clustered to form intervals in various alternate modes. To each rage comes the limits of a single mode, and interpretive freedom enters in the use of polyrhythms rather than in melodic embellishment. Here Shankar is a virtuoso among virtuosos.
A traditional slow movement or alap brought a drizzle of sitar notes, each a universe unto itself. Like Epicurean atoms, some simply fell into chants while others swerved freely, forming new patterns in a gentle musical lace. Low oscillations and astonishing fingering led into the middle faster movement or jor, where Shankar was joined by percussionist Ustad Alla Rakha playing the tabla. Here were sounds most familiar to the Western ear, as the tala of rhythms went from a simple 3-2-2 pattern to formations of 4-4-2-2.
In the first rage the final coincidence of polyrhythms during the third movement provided welcome serenity at the close, amid faster and faster playing on the strings. Silence is not an element in this music, which is void of rests. Yet the uncanny beat combinations offer peace within the sounds, and the effect with Shankar's bravura was nothing short of magic.