Indian Independence Anniversary Concert Barbican, London

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Think Scotland, think bagpipes; think India, think sitar. Absurd, you might suppose, that the music of a country should be caught in the image of a single instrument. Yet the fact remains that the dreamy sound from a hollowed gourd, with five plucked strings and a dozen others strung on for resonance, is the aural emblem of the Indian sub-continent.

Think sitar, of course, think Ravi Shankar. The first to give it a voice in the West, the now septuagenarian sitarist was the ideal choice for the LSO's concert on Monday night celebrating the 50th anniversary of Indian independence. Quite why this should happen five months before the actual date in August was unclear. But, with Indian conductor Zubin Mehta in town for the birthday festival of another septuagenarian, Mstislav Rostropovich, and with the chance of packing out the Barbican with Shankar groupies obviously a temptation, it must have seemed like a good idea whatever the date.

And it was Shankar's Sitar Concerto No 1 that drew the crowds. First played by the LSO in 1971, when minimalism was still a speck on the musical horizon, it's in four lively and repetitive movements that are largely absolved from the need to change key, and indeed to show much evidence of functional harmony. Instead, ragas and Indian rhythms in set-piece improvisations replace tonal drama.

Shankar's work held the ear as long as his own virtuosity held centre stage, shared here with his sitar-playing daughter Anoushka. At other times, in slow music especially, the piece had more the style of an old- fashioned folklore rhapsody, though this in itself gave some pleasantly lyrical music in the pastoral openings of the second and third movements. A shame that the solo bongo player received no credit: as tabla soloist manque, his role was vital to the concerto's dynamic character.

Though intended for a standard orchestral line-up, the evening's world premiere, Naresh Sohal's Satyagraha, showed a more subtle blending of East and West. Taking its title from a Sanskrit word meaning "insistence on truth" (the motto of Gandhi's resistance movement), the piece, commissioned by the LSO for the 50th anniversary celebrations, used Rule, Britannia! and Ram Dhun, a tune for Lord Ram sung by Gandhi at his prayer meetings, as an allegory of the opposing parties in the independence struggle.

With their in-built responses, anthems are loaded material, largely linked, as in Tchaikovsky's 1812, with conflict. But here, stressing the peaceful nature of the transition, Sohal so shocked native listeners with a strident version of Arne's nautical ditty that thereafter they were open to the work's many beauties, not least its magical opening for solo flute and the smooth link to the upbeat second section with its bracing trumpets and percussion.

A worthy tribute, then, to a lasting association that, as Nehru remarked, happens rarely in the history of nations. In this anniversary year, it would be a shame if this were Satyagraha's only performance.

Nicholas Williams