Britten Sinfonia & Nitin Sawhney, Royal Festival Hall, London
Monday 22 November 2004
It's hard to pin down what happened on stage at the Royal Festival Hall last night, but so is the man who was the inspiration for the occasion: as a British Asian born in Rochester, Nitin Sawhney is tailor-made to elude categorisation. He studied classical piano with precocious success at primary school, then added flamenco guitar and tabla, and by the age of 15 was playing jazz in clubs. While a student he co-wrote and starred in Britain's first Asian sitcom, Goodness Gracious Me, and he now pursues additional parallel careers as a club DJ and film composer. So for the Britten Sinfonia orchestra to commission a work from him is merely par for the course.
Indeed, this whole concert was of his devising, and it opened in the most felicitous way, by reciprocating our welcoming applause with a performance - together with a percussionist - of Steve Reich's Clapping Music. Just that: two pairs of hands clapping, in what seemed initially a simple rhythm, then built into wondrous complexities, and then closed in perfect sync. This segued into Sawhney's The Conference, which used vocal patterns to prove how close Reich's ideas are to those which inform Indian classicism: like those geometric designs on pots found in widely-dispersed prehistoric cultures, these intricate cross-rhythms are a universal game.
If adding simultaneous video images to these pieces was to risk over-egging the pudding - the musical mixture was rich enough on its own - those images worked beautifully with the pieces the Britten Sinfonia came on stage to play. Reich's 1994 Duet felt a bit too obsessive in the Philip Glass manner, but Arvo Pärt's Fratres - backed by the hologram of a turning globe - came over as a glorious exploration, infinitely comforting in its serene predictability. This was Sawhney's homage, and the Sinfonia delivered it immaculately.
Then came homages of a different sort, in the form of two pieces of film music by AR Rahman, the popular Indian composer. Sawhney loves his work, but I can't see the point, any more than I could see why the Brazilian singer Tina Grace was brought on to hum a soulful little scale at the beginning, and another at the end. This music was pure Bollywood, by turns saccharine and declamatory, and, shorn of its visual component, seemed thin stuff indeed.
The rest of the night was unadulterated Sawhney: little "tracks" (his word) demonstrating his graceful knack with textures and timbres, and his ability to meld Eastern and Western styles. Then came the pièce de résistance: The Classroom, which was written for the Britten Sinfonia and a few hand-picked Asian musicians. Sawhney's programme patter was as usual persuasive - an autobiographical work, he said, reflecting his rebellious infant imagination - but the reality fell some way short. Part of the trouble lay in crude mic-ing: when you put singers, solo instrumentalists, an acoustic orchestra and heavy electronic effects together, you've got to know what you're doing, and Sawhney's soundmen didn't. But the real problem was the work itself: so coarse-grained and earthbound that the Sinfonia's excellent ensemble players never got to show what they could do.
Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Katie Hopkins gives rare glimpse of sensitive side with heartfelt open letter to her children penned in case she dies from epilepsy
- 2 Rihanna's Met Gala dress took one Chinese woman 2 years to make, was reduced to omelette meme in 2 seconds
- 3 Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to replace Jeremy Clarkson and co
- 4 #JeSuisEd: People share photos of themselves eating awkwardly in solidarity with Labour leader
- 5 Women think Irish men are the sexiest, survey finds
Penny Dreadful, series 2 episode 1, review: It is still gloriously silly
Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to replace Jeremy Clarkson and co
Eurovision 2015: What date and time is the song contest and who are the favourites to win?
How the Other Half Eat, Channel 4 - TV review: Swapping food trolleys shows how food and class are closely connected
Indiana Jones sequel confirmed by Lucasfilm - but will Harrison Ford return to the franchise?
In defence of liberal democracy
General Election 2015: Post-election 'shambles' looms as 70 per cent of voters say SNP 'should not be able to veto UK government policies'
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
General election live: SNP suspends two members for disrupting Labour rally
General Election 2015: Sturgeon claims Scots 'appalled' by Ed Miliband's refusal to work with SNP