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Peace and love man

Dr L Subramaniam, India's roving ambassador for the violin, reveals his global ambitions at a concert in Berlin. By Martin Gordon
A mere 30 minutes after stepping off the overnight plane from Madras (flying economy class), the world's leading Karnatic violinist walks into the press conference and goes into autodidact mode before the assembled journalists can even get their Biros out. At breakneck speed, he delivers an eloquent introduction to Indian classical music, briefly analyses the differences between North-east Asian and Western classical styles, offers a mini-seminar on violin techniques and closes with an anecdotal overview of hybridised musical forms. The Subramaniam roadshow has hit Berlin.

Hailed for his virtuosity by connoisseurs and critics alike, Dr Lakshminarayan Subramaniam (his first name conveniently initialised for Western use) is the man responsible for freeing the Indian violin from its traditional accompanying role and moving it into the musical frontline. Performing as happily with Westerners (Herbie Hancock, Stephane Grappelli, Yehudi Menuhin) as with Indian musicians (most notably Ravi Shankar), Subramaniam has remained faithful to his Karnatic (South Indian) roots while developing a "global" musical philosophy. His Global Symphony, composed for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations and given its European premiere last week in Berlin, is the latest result.

"We all have common feelings," says Subramaniam. "I don't have to be able to speak your language in order to tell whether you are happy or sad." So, is it some kind of musical Esperanto he has on offer, albeit one that works? "Music is a universal language which doesn't separate people - they may not understand it on a technical level but, with an open mind, there will be some emotion, some feeling, some spiritual undercurrent that is common."

Written with, and dedicated to, his wife Viji, who sadly died last year, the Global Symphony is a flexible structure that will change from performance to performance, depending upon the players involved. In Berlin, Subramaniam's "Global Orchestra" included Japanese koto, Syrian oud and Spanish guitar, as well as his regular Karnatic trio, a 60-piece orchestra, the choir of the Deutsche Oper, assorted drummers and percussionists, tubular bells, marimbas and two keyboard-players.

Distancing himself from postmodern magpie culture, Subramaniam insists that his symphony is "actuallv not a mixture of cultures. It's not as though I'm taking a Chinese line, a Japanese line, an Indian line and orchestrating them. The performer should perform according to his emotions, and it will be his input, his interpretation, his creation which forms part of the composition."

I arrive for the first of a series of gruelling rehearsals in the SFB TV and radio complex in central Berlin. The first day is for strings and keyboards, but the piano is inaudible even to me, and I'm sitting only four feet away. Subramaniam tries to get the pianist to play louder, but to no avail. Two requests for the piano-lid to be lifted seemingly go unheard and the third is acted upon with the zeal of an enervated sloth. "Have you heard the tape?" the Doctor pointedly enquires of the somnambulant keyboardist before calling a recess, during which the pianist is replaced with Stalinist efficiency. Not for nothing is L Subramaniam known as the "Emperor of Sound".

This is not to suggest that he is a tyrant, only that his music demands total commitment from all performers alike. "The most important thing is to convey the musical thoughts and emotions. It's not the notes - pretty much anyone can practise and play - but the common emotion, the common feeling that has to be brought out."

The compound time-signatures are causing a little local difficulty in the violins, and brows furrow as the Doctor explains the counting and asks for the notated parts to be "played as if improvised". But suddenly the strings understand, and a thrilling moment comes when, in response to their new-found dexterity, Subramaniam responds with a brief, 40-second solo of such intensity and mournfulness that my vision momentarily blurs.

For Subramaniam, who boasts a Master's degree in classical music from Wesleyan University, Connecticut, the lack of improvisatory skills among Western colleagues is a constant cause of regret. "I've played with musicians who have a fantastic facility with their instruments - they can play absolutely anything you put in front of them - but if you ask for two or three bars in this particular style or that particular mode, they are completely blocked. I've said to some of the greatest performers, `Why don't you improvise a couple of bars there?', but they immediately say, `No, no, no,' and ask me to write it down."

From hearing the classical violin section being schooled in the emulation of the scratchy sound of Hindi film orchestras, to the arrival of the Deutsche Oper choir - with their perfectly rehearsed vocal parts - the experience of witnessing the Global Symphony (and a second orchestral piece, Fantasy on Vedic Chants) taking shape before my ears proved one of a kind. As the choir finished their first ever rendition in the Indian akara style of wordless vocalise (using only the sounds "o", "ha" and "mm", being the constituent parts of the word "ohm", and much easier than teaching 60 Germans to sing in phonetic Hindi in four days), Subramaniam visibly relaxed for the first time, confident in the knowledge that, despite the shortage of time, it was all going to work out OK.

Finally, after four days of 18-hour rehearsals, the concert took place in an atmosphere of heightened expectation that saw late-comers battling with security staff to gain admission. Broadcast live by satellite to 25 countries and over one million people, soloists and ensemble produced an incandescent performance: particular highlights, the Doctor's mind- boggling dexterity apart, were Andreas Weiser's extemporised percussion parts and the soul-stirring power of the German choir. Minor technical gremlins aside, it was a thrilling example of Subramaniam's global philosophy in action.

n L Subramaniam, with K Gopinath (mridangam) and R Yogaraj (kanjira / morsing): 7.45pm tonight, QEH, SBC, London SE1 (0171-960 4242)