Zubin Mehta and Anoushka Shankar
05 Mar 2017
Concerto for sitar and orchestra No. 2 “Raga-Mala” (71 min.)
Anoushka Shankar Sitar
Concerto for Orchestra, Sz 116 (46 min.)
Anoushka Shankar in conversation with Andreas Ottensamer (13 min.)
“Everybody knew India through Ravi.” These words, with which Zubin Mehta paid homage to the sitar player Ravi Shankar when he died in 2012, hint at the artist’s significance: no other Indian instrumentalist and composer made the music and musicianship of his home country as internationally known as he did. Throughout his life Shankar considered himself an intermediary between East and West. When he was young he travelled as a member of his brother’s dance group to Europe, where he got to know classical music. Later, he trained with the famous Indian pedagogue Allauddin Khan in traditional sitar playing and achieved such a level of mastery that he became a soloist who gave concerts internationally. He collaborated with very diverse Western artists, with Yehudi Menuhin, with the guitarist of the Beatles, George Harrison, with André Previn, Philip Glass – and his compatriot Zubin Mehta, with whom he was friends for many years.
Mehta was also the person who accompanied the process of creation of Raga-Mālā, Shankar’s Second Concerto for sitar and orchestra, a work commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and who premiered the work in 1981 with Shankar as the soloist. This piece is based on approximately 30 ragas, traditional Indian melodic patterns, and links the oriental art of improvisation with the performed playing of a classical concert. Zubin Mehta brings the work to Berlin for his concerts with the Philharmonic. The soloist is Ravi Shankar’s daughter Anoushka, who learned to play the sitar from her father, and who was born in the year Raga-Mālā was composed.
Just as for Ravi Shankar, for the Hungarian Béla Bartók too the traditional music of his homeland formed the basis of his music. For years, the composer was on the road, listening to the folk’s songs and to their way of making music. The special rhythms and melodic articulation of folk music were an important source of inspiration for Bartók and decisively influenced his musical language, including the language that he used in the Concerto for Orchestra. “The title of this symphonic orchestral work finds its explanation in the soloistic treatment of individual instruments or sections of instruments,” Bartók wrote on the programme for the premiere. He composed the work in 1943, a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation. At that time Bartók, who in 1940 had left his home country, threatened as it was by war and fascism, was living in American exile, terminally ill and in difficult material circumstances. The Boston premiere of the concerto delivered the disheartened composer one last major success.
Unusual Forms of Concertizing
Works by Ravi Shankar and Béla Bartók
Today’s programme features two different types of concertos. Ravi Shankar’s Raga-Mālā does not fit into the category of concerto that is familiar to us but presents Indian ragas played with a classical symphony orchestra. Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is one of the most prominent examples of a composer returning to a long-established form in a 20th-century work. Both composers treat the genre playfully and are interested in the music of their respective countries. Shankar combines North Indian art music with European classical music and its forms. Bartók’s works are closely connected with the Hungarian musical tradition. He studied the folk music of his homeland and other regions in depth, and it influenced his oeuvre.
East Meets West – Ravi Shankar
Ravi Shankar was born as Robindra Shankar Chowdhury in Varanasi (also known as Benares or Kashi) on 7 April 1920. His path took him from India’s most sacred city on the banks of the Ganges in the state of Uttar Pradesh via Europe to the US. The sitar virtuoso and composer became one of the best-known Indian musicians of the 20th century. Shankar collaborated with such musical figures as George Harrison of the Beatles, Philip Glass, one of the founders of minimalist music, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and saxophonist John Coltrane. He performed in Great Britain, Germany and the US, explaining Indian music to audiences during his concerts, and released numerous recordings. He also taught at several American universities and founded the Kinnara School of Indian music in Los Angeles. His work, his popularity, the experiments with Western classical music and mixing of different musical styles also brought him criticism, however – particularly from traditionalist musicians in his homeland: “In India I have been called a destroyer,” he said. “But that is only because they mixed my identity as a performer and as a composer. As a composer, I have tried everything, even electronic music and avant-garde. But as a performer, I am, believe me, getting more classical and more orthodox, jealously protecting the heritage that I have learned.” Highly esteemed and honoured with many awards, Shankar died in 2012 at the age of 92 in San Diego, where he had lived for many years.
Raga-Mālā – A Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra
Shankar composed music for films and ballets, experimented with electronic music and wrote three concertos for sitar and classical symphony orchestra. The first was composed for the London Symphony Orchestra and André Previn in 1970/71. The second, which will be heard at these concerts, was written ten years later for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and its then Music Director Zubin Mehta. Shankar composed a third sitar concerto in 2009 for his daughter Anoushka Shankar, born in 1981, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
The raga is the framework of Indian classical music. The term is ambiguous: it is the Sanskrit word for colour or hue but, above all, it is the central melodic element in Indian music. Ragas provide the basis for vocal or instrumental compositions or improvisations, and ornamentation plays a fundamental role. In addition, ragas have extramusical meanings and particular emotional qualities or moods; they are associated with times of day and seasons or certain natural phenomena as well as spirits or deities. Magical and healing powers are also attributed to them.
Ragas are primarily performed on the long-necked lute sitar. It has a bulbous resonating chamber made of dried bottle gourd with a wooden cover, a long hollow neck with movable frets made of brass and approximately 20 strings. Six or seven strings, which run along the neck, produce the melody. They are plucked by the player with a steel plectrum that is worn like a ring on the right forefinger. The other 11 to 13 strings are “sympathetic strings”; they resonate in response to the plucked melody strings, resulting in the typical singing sound of the instrument, rich in overtones.
Shankar’s Second Sitar Concerto is not a concertante composition in the style of Western classical music. As the title Raga-Mālā Garland of Rings suggests – mālā means garland, wreath or chain and is also used for pictorial depictions – it is a sequence of 30 precisely defined ragas. “The first movement,” the composer explained, “is completely devoted to the early morning raga Lalit, with a traditional, classical approach that closely retains the spirit of the raga. The second movement consists of five ragas (Bairagi, Para Meshwari, Kaushik Dwani, Gunkali, Vasanta Mukhari), mostly morning ones. The third movement has three evening ragas, Yaman Kalyan, Marwa and Desh, which are treated in detail and with rhythmic complexity. The fourth movement has the most ragas – 21. Some come in flashes as short as eight bars, while others are longer. A considerable number of rhythmic counterpoints have been used throughout the concerto. ... Trumpet, clarinet, flute, and violin solos are some of the highlights, along with the improvised sitar solos.”
An Array of Soloists – Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra
Bela Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is characterized by a different approach. “The title of this symphony-like orchestral work is explained by its tendency to treat the single instruments or instrumental groups in a concertante or soloistic manner,” Bartók wrote. Its cyclic form is also symphonic. Two scherzos and two fast movements are organized symmetrically around the slow third movement.
The first movement begins with a mysterious introduction. Above a motif in the cellos and double basses and tremolos in the high strings, the flute plays a theme that will assume an important role later, in the third movement. The Allegro is dominated by an energetic, almost fanfare-like theme. The second movement is characterized by “pair relationships”. Each pair of instruments has its own theme and “dance steps” represented by specific intervals: sixths in the bassoons, thirds in the oboes, sevenths in the clarinets, parallel fifths in the flutes, seconds in the trumpets. The themes are combined in the recapitulation. The movement begins and ends with a striking solo by the snare drum.
The composer described the third movement, entitled Elegia, as a “lugubrious death song”. The structure is chain-like: three successive themes “constitute the core of the movement, which is enframed by a misty texture of rudimentary motives,” Bartók wrote. The harp glissandos and woodwind figures at the beginning and end of the movement are reminiscent of the “lake of tears” episode in Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle.
The title Intermezzo interrotto (interrupted intermezzo) of the fourth-movement Allegro is to be taken literally. Cheerful to begin with, the mood changes abruptly in the second section and becomes ominous. At this point Bartók parodies the “Maxim” motif from Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow. The friendly mood of the opening returns at the end of the movement. The Finale contains many musical ideas: a fanfare theme in the horns, a presto theme in the style of a perpetuum mobile in the strings, a dolce melody and a distinctive closing idea in an impressive fugal passage. Motifs from Czech and Rumanian, but not Hungarian, folk music are interwoven. The conclusion is both brilliant and powerful.
Zubin Mehta and the Berliner Philharmoniker can look back on a long musical partnership that started in September 1961. Mehta was born in Bombay in 1936 and studied under Hans Swarowsky at the Vienna Academy of Music. The winner of the 1958 International Conductors’ Competition in Liverpool and of the Koussevitzky Competition in Tanglewood, he was by his mid-twenties already principal conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, where he remained from 1961 to 1967, while holding a similar appointment in Los Angeles from 1962 to 1978. Also at this time he made his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic and replaced an ailing Eugene Ormandy at the helm of the Israel Philharmonic, becoming the Israel PO’s music director in 1977. Since 1985 (until 2017) he has also been principal conductor of the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence: both institutions have named him their conductor for life. He was also principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1978 to 1991. In addition to his engagements in the concert hall, Zubin Mehta has also appeared in many of the world’s leading opera houses and from 1998 to 2006 was general music director of the Bavarian State Opera and Orchestra in Munich. Among the numerous honours that Zubin Mehta has received are the United Nations’ Lifetime Achievement Peace and Tolerance Award in 1999, membership of the French Legion of Honour in 2001 and the Bavarian Order of Merit in 2005. An honorary member of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, he was awarded the “Praemium Imperiale” by the Japanese Imperial Family in 2008 and the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2012. Together with his brother Zarin, Zubin Mehta founded the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation in Mumbai with the aim of introducing children to western classical music. The Buchmann-Mehta School of Music in Tel Aviv develops young talent in Israel and has close ties with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, as is a project of teaching young Arab Israelis from Shwaram and Nazareth with local teachers and members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. He last conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in September 2015 in works by Schmidt, Korngold and Saint-Saëns.
Anoushka Shankar, daughter of the Indian musician Ravi Shankar, was born in London in 1981. Her father taught her the sitar from when she was 9 years of age, and she gave her first public concert in New Delhi when she was 13. Shortly afterwards, she appeared for the first time on one of her father’s CDs. A renowned interpreter of Ravi Shankar’s concertos, the musician has performed with orchestras including the London Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the MDR Sinfonieorchester Leipzig, the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra under the direction of conductors such as Zubin Mehta, Kristjan Järvi and Jakub Hrůša. Anoushka Shankar has also appeared in major concert halls all over the world (Carnegie Hall, the Barbican Centre in London, Sydney Opera House, the Wiener Konzerthaus, the Paris Salle Pleyel, the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, the Alte Oper Frankfurt, the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles, the Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzerne) and at festivals such as the Verbier Festival, the Prague Spring International Music Festival and the London Proms. Anoushka Shankar has on many occasions demonstrated the cross-genre versatility of the sitar in her work together with artists such as Sting, Herbie Hancock, Karsh Kale, the flamenco guitarist Pepe Habichuela and the Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela. Active in promoting intercultural dialogue and women’s rights in India, the artist has received numerous prestigious awards (including five “Grammy” nominations). and was awarded the “House of Commons Shield” by the UK Parliament. Furthermore, she was one of the 20 “Asian Heroes” selected by Time magazine in 2004. Anoushka Shankar now makes her debut in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts.