Boston Musical Intelligencer
Sudeep Agarwala
May 30, 2011

Indian music in the classical world seems somehow out of place. With some exceptions, notably Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha or John Harbison’s Mirabai Songs, and after Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, the advent of Bollywood and — most recently — the huge success of Slumdog Millionaire (Jai Ho seems to be on infinite repeat at almost every wedding I’ve been to, Indian and non-), India seems to have pervaded pop culture more than anything else. So the Boston Modern Orchestra Project concert at NEC’s Jordan Hall on the evening of May 27 raised intrigue. Entitled “Sangita: The Spirit of India,” conductor Gil Rose led the ensemble in four orchestral works, all inspired by India and Indian music.

Inspired is probably the most salient word. In a discussion with three of the composers prior to the concert, Robert Kirzinger noted that all of the works in the evening’s performance were influenced by the music of India just as Beethoven was influenced by German folk music.

This thumbprint was most obvious in the first two works of the evening. Scored for string orchestra and prepared piano, Vineet Shende’s Naimittika Pralaya consists of five movements played without break, each describing various aspects of the ultimate destruction and rebirth of the universe. The work is startlingly intense and vivid, especially in the hands of Gil Rose and the BMOP orchestra, shifting from an uneasy murmuring of strings in the first movement (Rudra) to more vivid colors and textures throughout the rest of the work. The music is redolent with a flavor of Indian music, particularly in the fourth movement, Vrshti Git (Rain Song) in which a lyrical melody played in the strings evokes distinct raindrops plummeting in the prepared piano backdrop. This blends into a silent prayer-like fifth movement (Vásudeva) describing the re-creation of the universe by the spirit of Brahma.

MIT professor Evan Ziporyn’s Mumbai followed. A concerto for tabla —Indian hand drums — and orchestra, the work was written as a memorial to the victims of the Mumbai bombings in November 2008. The tabla was played by Sandeep Das, perhaps best known for his involvement in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road project. Ziporyn’s use of the tabla is intensely interesting, demonstrating the instrument’s versatility. Although Das was somewhat stilted and confined to the strict notation of Western music when playing with the orchestra, during solo passages and cadenzas he imbued his performance with the freedom and lyricism of traditional tabla music. Minimalist in its themes, and reserved in its explication of those themes, Ziporyn’s Mumbai doesn’t shy away from aggressive mixture of rhythms and applications of percussive textures. Scored for percussion and orchestra, the work eventually evolves into a canon for percussion, an exciting culmination that featured a multitude of percussion instruments, with no less than five — by my count — playing at one time. BMOP and Das gave an affable read of the collaboration between Eastern and Western methods of music.

India’s influence on the music was far more subtle in the second half of the evening’s concert, featuring MIT professor Peter Child’s Shanti and the North American premiere of John Foulds’s Three Mantras. The two works are very similar in many ways — for example, both are tone poems that evoke a Western aesthetic, utilizing Indian composition techniques, yet not necessarily its harmonies.

Apparently Childs’s Shanti, commissioned by the Jebediah Foundation, is an illustration of eight emotions discussed in the melakarta (a set of pitch permutations that are formed by a set of formal rules, in Childs’s own description). The emotions are somewhat obvious; written in a language that Western audiences can easily comprehend, these illustrations coalesce in lush Late Romantic harmonies and tone painting in the final movements, Shringar (love) and Shanti (peace).

Perhaps by virtue of his writing in the early twentieth century, Foulds’s Three Mantras is written very much with an English sensibility in mind. It inevitably reminded me of the tone poems of other English composers, most notably Gustav Holst, especially in the use of female chorus during the second Mantra, Bliss (here, performed by the Lorelei Ensemble).

It’s a pleasure to discuss the music that was presented on Friday evening, yet easy to forget the effort that goes into performing such work, especially in pieces that incorporate techniques and an understanding of music that isn’t necessarily endemic to the training of classical musicians. BMOP presented these four difficult works with unwavering technique and attention to detail that placed the vision of these composers in a comprehensible context. It is hard not to be appreciative of this obvious talent by both conductor and orchestra; we are lucky to have such an ensemble educating us with new music in Boston.