East is East and West is West . . . : MUSIC

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The Independent Culture
East-West Fusion Concert Royal Albert Hall, London If it wasn't an unprecedented gathering, it ought to have been. Violinists at the pinnacle of three great traditions met on Wednesday on the Royal Albert Hall stage: Stephane Grappelli, Ruggiero Ricci, LSubramanian - and they were just the workers. An increasingly surreal evening found itself reading messages from Prince Andrew, being addressed by King Constantine, and watching Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv's widow, miss the bearer of a bouquet. At its climax, the Bombay movie megastar Amitabh Bachchan put in an unadvertised appearance to draw a raffle. Several thousand hearts fluttered, and anything that actually got played after that had to work hard for attention.

This thoroughly Indian event was meant to raise funds for Round Square, an international group of schools that includes Gordonstoun and a number on the subcontinent - hence the "East-West Fusion Concert" idea. In practice, it was a showcase for Subramanian in several guises, though it took a while for him to play.

First up was Grappelli, with guitar and bass, in half an hour of the old familiar tunes: 87 next week, he still plays them with subtlety, physical relish, and an unbounded imagination. The self-discovered technique delivers more exact tuning and rhythmiclife than formal traditions seem to need. Short bow-strokes are at the heart of its minute adaptability. The sound is small, and amplification exposes it with potential cruelty, but finds only precision.

This is no act to follow, and Ricci's two solo Paganini Caprices sounded almost crude - no fault of the player, just the shock of plunging into a genre that projects a bigger, looser sound and doesn't need to amplify it. With Paganini, the extreme technical demands are like ideals that the player has to approach as closely as possible, not a cue for absolute perfection. Ricci gets nearer than most. He tackled the cascades of double-stopping and left-hand pizzicato with his usual gusto, but this wa s neither the time nor the place.

Subramanian's first session was a short, neat bout in the classical style with a quintet of assorted South Indian percussion and drones. Like almost all Indian musicians in big halls today, he uses amplification; unlike others, he has extended his skillsto take in a hard-edged, Western brilliance of attack and rapid arpeggios. The fast closing passage had the audience fully warmed up, and Grappelli's trio immediately returned to join in another Subramanian innovation, a number called Conversation whichthey recorded together some years ago. It's a real success, thanks in large part to using material that each violinist can respond to and improvise upon in his own way - an Indian shape, but a jazz feel. It ended after just 10 minutes, having barely started to explore its own potential.

This had already been a full-length concert in its own right, but during the interval the London Philharmonic set up on the platform. Daniel Nazareth, the Bombay-born conductor, took this unfamiliar-looking LPO through Berlioz's Le Corsair overture with a decisive manner that deserves an outing in front of the first team. He should be careful about exposing Subramanian's Western-style orchestral music to a critical public. Even here people were falling asleep all over the hall during the Spring Rhapsody, an amiable sequence of quite personable melodies put together without the variety of texture or sense of direction to sustain half an hour. One movement would have suited the night well enough.

With another lengthy platform rearrangement to follow, it was 10.40pm when Ricci, Subramanian and his ensemble, with a hugely expanded orchestra, launched into the Double Concerto before a steadily shrinking audience. There was more flair and rhythmic energy about the music but no more overall shape, and the South Indian percussionists were reduced to an attractive colour effect. Its best moments came when the orchestra got out of the way to let the two soloists have a conversation on something like equal terms, and even then the written parts constrained them.

Clearly this is not the cue for earnest analysis of fusion and its alternatives. Rather, with three such violinists on the spot, it was a missed opportunity. At least the first half took off, and Subramanian's partnership with Grappelli struck musical sparks. But will we ever hear them together again?