Nitin Sawhney and Britten Sinfonia, Royal Festival Hall London

Wondrous blend of musical traditions from a thoroughly modern Renaissance man
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The Independent Culture

It was hard to pin down what happened on stage at the Royal Festival Hall last night, but so is the man who inspired it. As a British Asian born in Rochester, Nitin Sawhney eludes categorisation.

It was hard to pin down what happened on stage at the Royal Festival Hall last night, but so is the man who inspired it. As a British Asian born in Rochester, Nitin Sawhney eludes categorisation.

He studied classical piano with precocious success at primary school, added flamenco guitar and tabla and by the age of 15 was playing jazz in clubs.

As a student he co-wrote and starred in Britain's first Asian sketch show, Goodness Gracious Me, and he now pursues additional parallel careers as a club DJ and film composer. So for the Britten Sinfonia 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, 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.

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 Part'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 A R Rahman. The rest 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", written for the Britten Sinfonia plus handpicked Asian musicians.

The reality fell some way short of the persuasive programme patter. Part of the problem was crude miking, but the real trouble was the work itself, so coarse-grained and earthbound that the Sinfonia's excellent ensemble players never got to show what they could do.

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