The 21C Music Festival: Giving Wings to the Better Angels of Our Nature

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Zakir Hussain. Photo credit: The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall; Lisa Salulensky
Zakir Hussain. Photo credit: The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall; Lisa Salulensky

The evening ended with the absolutely spectacular Peshkar, a concerto for tabla and symphony orchestra performed by Ustad Zakir Hussain and the Royal Conservatory Orchestra conducted by Maestro Zane Dalal. There have been some collisions of culture similar to this one involving the collision of music from the Hindustani (or North Indian) universe and the European one. Even the best of us have appallingly short memories so it bears remembering – among others – the extremely avant-garde (for its day) versions created by Maestro Uday Shankar, the composer, dancer and choreographer-brother of (the infinitely more recognised) Pandit Ravi Shankar. His most famous endeavour was Radha-Krishna a ballet he created and danced with the great prima ballerina Anna Pavlova in 1923.

Pandit Uday Shankar’s adaptation of European theatrical techniques to Indian dance made his art hugely popular both in India and abroad, and he is rightly credited for ushering in a new era for traditional Indian temple dances, which until then had been known for their strict interpretations, and which were also going through their own revival. Meanwhile, his brother Ravi Shankar was helping to popularise Indian classical music in the outside world. Uday Shankar also collaborated with the German modern dancer-choreographer, Kurt Jooss and another German, Rudolf Laban, who had invented a system of dance notation. This experience only added more exuberances to his (Uday Shankar’s) expressionist dance.

In the realm of popular music there are, of course, the several incarnations of John McLaughlin’s great music including with such pioneering groups as Shakti – one of the first incarnations of which included Zakir Hussain.

Ustad Hussain’s pedigree is impeccable. He grew up at the feet of his father, Ustad Alla Rakha, one of the greatest ever figures in Indian music and an tabalchi (tabla player) whose virtuosity remained unrivalled on the instrument – until his son, Zakir Hussain came of age, that is. The Ustad’s performances in the musical realm have been benchmarks not simply of technical genius, but of musicality as a whole. Moreover, his superior intellect has also helped him create more than just frightfully original ways of approaching rhythm. In his many performances of solo and jugalbandhi performances (duo performances) with other instrumentalists The Ustad has elevated the interpretation of iconic classical Indian ragas to a rarefied realm.

Using his incredibly deep and inspired understanding of tradition; indeed with an uncanny ability to excavate the musical tradition with the precision of an enlightened archeologist Ustad Zakir Hussain has been able not only to interpret Indian music but to give it – and the tradition from whence it came – a whole new context and meaning for and in the modern world. But his composition Peshkar does something more than that too. It is a glorious example not just because it is vaunted contribution to the modern history of the Indian tradition; it is an unrivaled contribution to the history of music. It celebrates the co-existence of Indian classical music and the classical music by relocating music as a whole to an altogether new realm: that where both streams and traditions can coexist as if they were of one root and one branch.

Zakir Hussain and the Royal Conservatory Orchestra conducted by Zane Dalal. Photo credit: The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall; Lisa Salulensky
Zakir Hussain and the Royal Conservatory Orchestra conducted by Maestro Zane Dalal. Photo credit: The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall; Lisa Salulensky

By melding the rhythmic heartbeat of the tabla with the collective breaths of the instruments of the symphonic orchestra and pouring the resultant music into one flaming and bubbling volcanic mix Ustad Zakir Hussain’s work – Peskhar – enables us to imagine music not just as the glorious artistic creation of a human being, but as a single, living and breathing human being itself. The pulse of this wonderful human being – this Peshkar showed us that night of January 24th 2020 that the rules of pentatonic scales and the tala – that term used in Indian classical music to refer to musical meter – any rhythmic beat or strike of which measures musical time in Indian music and governs “the whole subject of musical meter” can coexist as if in one body and sing and dance as if it is a live human being.

That is, after all, what music is meant to do, isn’t it? Make us rise up – if only in our minds’ minds – and dance because when we hear this elemental melody and harmony and feel its cosmic rhythm it’s as if the whole world around us is joyfully alive in our own mind and body and spirit. This is how the Ustad and his extraordinary work, swirling amidst the musicians of the Royal Conservatory Orchestra caused us to be swept up into the heady musical world of the Ustad’s making. In a programme note Ustad Zakir Hussain told us, “(The) tabla solo tradition is still an evolving one; loosely, it appears to have four clear movements that control the flow of the performance. In this piece, I have tried to maintain the integrity of the repertoire while trying to find a way for the orchestra to react and support the presentation”.

It strikes me that this is what all great composers – from Bach, Beethoven, Brahms; and Mozart, Chopin and Schubert have done through their concerti and symphonic works for piano and violin and clarinet (etc.) and orchestra. In those works, as they unfold before audiences, a titanic struggle ensues as the soloist wrests the music from the orchestra before yielding back to the ensemble – back and forth the music goes until in its climactic moment the finale arrives in the monumental dénouement of the poetic musical narrative or portrait to restore goodwill to the world around us once again.

Zakir Hussain and the Royal Conservatory Orchestra conducted by Zane Dalal did just this to us as with the breathless palpitations of the tabla-heart a new creation – albeit a musical one – came to be born. All of this seeming to flow out of the magical fingers of Ustad Zakir Hussain as they caressed the skins of the tabla – both musical potter and medieval apothecary – mixing the magical potion of melody, harmony and rhythm to create reflection of what humanity ought to look like. But of course, Ustad Zakir Hussain was not the only one who came to the rescue of “the better angels of our nature”. Much more was to follow on Saturday, January 25th, the final day of the 2020 edition of the 21C Music Festival…

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