East meets West: Prom 41

‘Passages’ by Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass

Britten Sinfonia with Anoushka Shankar, sitar, Karen Kamensek, conductor, Alexa Mason, soprano

Tuesday 15th August 2017

The Late Proms, introduced in 2012, offer a slightly different musical experience to the main concerts and often feature non-mainstream classical music, jazz or specially-themed concerts (such as the Ibiza Prom and Jarvis Cocker’s Wireless Nights Prom), in addition to memorable performances of some of the greatest works by Bach, including the Goldberg Variations (Andras Schiff) and the solo cello suites (Yo Yo Ma). There’s a different atmosphere in the Royal Albert Hall later in the evening and despite the size of the hall and audience, concerts which start after 10pm often feel more relaxed and intimate. Prom 41 was no exception, with an additional special resonance – 15th August 2017 was the anniversary of Indian independence. Appropriately, East met West in the first complete live performance of Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar’s concept album ‘Passages’, performed by the Britten Sinfonia and an ensemble of Indian musicians, with Shankar’s daughter Anoushka on sitar.

Philip Glass met Ravi Shankar in Paris in the 1960s, a time when Shankar was already famous in the west for his collaborations with Yehudi Menuhin and George Harrison of The Beatles. Shankar taught Glass, then only 29, how to accurately notate Indian classical music and Glass learnt how Indian music achieves its sophisticated rhythms and ornamentation, which had a profound affect on his approach to rhythmic structures as a foundation for his own music.

I did a remarkable, intuitive thing, which is I took the music I had written down and I erased all the bar lines. And suddenly, I saw something which I hadn’t seen before.”

– Philip Glass

In ‘Passages’ American Minimalism fuses with traditional Hindustani classical music to create a mesmerizing flow of exquisite sounds and intoxicating pulsating rhythms. The first movement is based on a theme Shankar gave to Glass (a raga played on saxophone), the second vice versa, and so on through the six movements of the work. The influence of Shankar and Indian music is clear in Glass’s use of complex rhythms and multiple time signatures, repeated elements, drones and open fifths, but ‘Passages’ is very different from the hard-core Minimalism one normally associates with Philip Glass – the spooling, repetitive motifs which ebb and flow, and his distinctive, sensuous harmonic shifts are all there, but there is a wealth of lyricism and poetry too in the intertwining lines and voices (including solo soprano and four other singers). The whole work is a rich tapestry of sounds as East and West flow effortlessly in and out of one another, with passages of jewel-like clarity and exotic dialogues between Western and Indian instruments.

Conductor Karen Kamensek, who began working with Glass in the 1990s, said ‘Passages’ blew her mind when she first encountered it and she secretly hoped she might one day have an opportunity to perform it. She cracked the code of Glass’s and Shankar’s notation to create a performance score which is accessible to Western orchestral musicians, and the result was this extraordinarily absorbing and exquisitely presented Late Prom.

Kamensek is clearly very comfortable with this music (she conducted ENO’s acclaimed new production of Glass’s ‘Akhnaten in 2016), combining rigour with an instinctive feel for its shifting rhythms and palpitating melodic streams. The strings of the Britten Sinfonia were wonderfully sleek and silky, the percussion sparkled with precision, the harp delicate and filigree. There was fine playing from woodwind and an elegantly supple solo trumpet. Soprano Alexa Mason’s translucent voice melded with the ensemble as another layer of instrumentation. From the first shimmering sounds of Anoushka Shankar’s sitar, we were instantly transported to another time and place.

This was an entrancing fusion of modernity and tradition, an exquisite meeting of minds, music styles and instrumentation, and a brilliant exchange of musical languages and compositional methods.



(picture: Anoushka Shankar, sitar. BBC)


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