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)

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent