Sitar-playing Shankars shine at Symphony Center

By Anjali Verghis

“There are so many Indians here,” commented the woman behind me as we pushed through the crowd at Symphony Center to see the sold-out Ravi and Anoushka Shankar concert. She wasn’t wrong, but Indians hardly made up the majority of the audience. In a testament to the Shankars’ success in blending Western motifs with classical Indian music, the crowd was composed of fans of all ages and many different cultures.

I definitely detected a Western influence in the first set played by Anoushka Shankar, a flutist, a tabla player, and two tanpura (a drone instrument) players. Ms. Shankar, who was born in London, went through four of her songs (about 15 minutes apiece), making her sitar range in sound from “exotic” Eastern to nearly resembling a jazz guitar in some of her faster compositions. She utilized techniques familiar to me as a Western musician, sometimes employing stop-time or what sounded like a walking bass. As someone just learning Indian classical music, I appreciated its jazz-like improvisational style as well as the classical sound of the sitar, especially coming from someone as well versed in both genres as Ms. Shankar (she’s also an accomplished pianist).

What intrigued me most about Ms. Shankar’s playing was her abrupt transitions between incredible improvisational passages to a recurrence of the original melody line. She cut off one to switch to the other—the effect was a build in tension to an expected climax which didn’t come until the end of the piece, emphasizing the fact that each solo section was one long variation on the theme. Ms. Shankar is a brilliant soloist, and a highlight of my evening took place during “Kirvani,” when she engaged in an improvisational dialogue with the flutist that merged into a unison passage played at breakneck speed.

Ravi Shankar came out after intermission with his daughter and the other accompanists (minus the flutist). At 87, he needed to be helped onto the stage, and while his daughter tuned his sitar, Mr. Shankar explained that he had recently been ill to the point where the doctors were concerned for his life. Mr. Shankar had a special smaller sitar made for this tour and explained that he was “not at the best of ability,” but would “try best to do justice to music and to all of .”

If this was not the best of Ravi Shankar’s ability, I cannot fathom how much better he could be. The minute Mr. Shankar started playing, all thoughts of his frailty vanished. His slower playing was lyrical and expressive; his faster playing highlighted his technical virtuosity and improvisational strength; every piece underlined his (and his daughter’s) compositional skill. He generally played the melody lines, accompanied by Ms. Shankar doubling the part at a lower pitch. There were a few sections when the pair just vamped two sets of notes, creating chords over the tabla rhythm. I particularly enjoyed the interplay between father and daughter, especially in light of the call-and-response format being a hallmark of Indian classical music. Mr. Shankar improvised a phrase, and Ms. Shankar repeated it almost instantaneously at a different pitch.

The second set also showcased Ms. Shankar’s versatility, as she easily transitioned from playing resonant bass lines to taking the melody from Mr. Shankar to soloing. The ability of the tabla player, Tanmoy Bose, was also underscored as his playing punctuated and added color to the music. Especially notable was his relationship with the sitarists; though the music was largely improvised, Bose knew when to add drum rolls during a crescendoing, accelerating passage.

Extended tuning between songs occurred throughout the second set, and Mr. Shankar kept the atmosphere light, commenting, “I’m so glad that things have changed over the years….People no longer clap after we tune.” Mr. Shankar has an unique perspective to observe a changing Western attitude toward Indian music; he is famed for casting a spotlight on the centuries-old style through his friendship with Western stars like George Harrison and John Coltrane.

My favorite part of the show was watching The Shankars perform together in the second set. To be able to see two generations of musical excellence, a living legend and a phenomenal prodigy, an 87-year-old man and a 26-year-old woman, playing music together at such a high level is the opportunity of a lifetime. Especially touching was the father and daughter’s hug at the end, when they both stepped onstage to enjoy the standing ovation they rightly deserved.

When the musicians disappeared from the stage, the audience broke out into a roar of voices, all proclaiming the show absolutely spectacular. My friend and I, our vocabularies reduced to single words of awe, tried in vain to think of a performance that rivaled what we had just seen. “Well,” my friend observed, after a lot of thought, “the solo Anoushka show that I saw would be my second favorite.” “And the third?” I asked. “It’s so far behind those two performances that it doesn’t even matter.”