Shankar’s ‘Garland Of Ragas’ Blooms In West Coast Bow

Anoushka Shankar performed her father’s Sitar Concerto No. 2 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
By Rick Schultz

LOS ANGELES — It took 35 years, but Ravi Shankar’s Sitar Concerto No. 2, Raga Mala (Garland of Ragas), was finally given its West Coast premiere Jan. 13 with former music director Zubin Mehta leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The composer’s daughter, Anoushka Shankar, was soloist.

Former music director Zubin Mehta conducted. (Photo by Marco Brescia / La Scala)

Mehta, who led the New York Philharmonic in the concerto’s 1981 premiere with Ravi Shankar on sitar, withdrew from a scheduled November revival of the work with the New Yorkers. Manfred Honeck, the Pittsburgh Symphony’s music director, took over for the indisposed 80-year-old conductor.

The LA performance was a homecoming for Mehta, who was music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1962 to 1978. Mehta walked slowly to the podium but looked well, directing both orchestra and soloist with comfortable authority. The program also included Richard Strauss’ eventful autobiographical epic, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).

At nearly 60-minutes, Shankar’s four-movement Second Sitar Concerto is pleasantly meandering, neither quite Indian nor Western. It alternates between occasionally punchy modernism, strains of lovely English folk music, and straightup sitar playing.

The Philharmonic, performing warmly for Mehta, conveyed plenty of moods and colors while negotiating the ragas — melodic structures and pitch patterns unique to this essentially improvisatory form of Indian music. But there were too few sections of full-fledged orchestra-soloist interaction. East merely coexisted with West.

Ravi Shankar

Raga,” by the way, literally means “coloring” or “tone.” The violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who became a colleague of Ravi Shankar’s in the 1960s, once observed that in music the difference between East and West begins even before the performance. For the sitar, Menuhin said, it’s all about the promise generated in the tuning-up, the music emerging seamlessly out of the tuning process. Indeed, after the 18-minute first movement, Anoushka Shankar’s tuning up created the kind of ear-catching anticipation Menuhin was talking about.

As a solo instrument, the sitar has always been a natural attentiongetter in the West, not least for its associations with Beatle George Harrison, who studied with Ravi Shankar in the 1960s. As a substitute lead guitar, the sitar’s mysterious, exotic sound remains in the minds and hearts of generations. No wonder a good crowd turned out at Disney Hall to hear Anoushka Shankar play her father’s concerto.

Anoushka studied the instrument with Ravi, who died in 2012. She is a glamorous virtuoso with fluent sitar chops, but one wished the concerto had given her more to do. Often idle while the orchestra played — the concerto was orchestrated by José Luis Greco, son of Spanish dancer José Greco — the sitarist sat on a colorful rug in bare feet waiting for her moments. Those moments certainly arrived, especially in the attractive way the sitar’s sound blended with other instruments, including Lou Anne Neill’s harp and Catherine Ransom Karoly’s flute.

There were more orchestral instrument-sitar pairings, but Anoushka’s solos really started to cook in the third movement Largo, where she has a marvelous passage with percussion, including a conga. Here East really did meet West, with each of the players allowing the others to generate a cohesive improvisatory-seeming rhythmic momentum.

Willem Mengelberg’s marked-up score of the opening page of ‘Heldenleben.’

Ultimately, the raga-based concerto became a collection of colorful moments rather than a unified whole. Or maybe that view just reflects Western conditioning.  The work ended in rousing full-orchestra fashion, followed by a standing ovation from the audience.

After intermission, Mehta, conducting from memory, led the Phil in a reflective rendition of Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, a lush and ambitious score that, unlike Shankar’s concerto, depends on a more literally characterized shaping of orchestral colors, moods, and virtuosity. In the “Hero’s Adversaries” section, for example, Strauss has the tenor tuba (played on euphonium by James Miller) and bass tuba (Norman Pearson) thumb their noses at an annoying music critic.

Mehta’s rendition began in untidy fashion, becoming more involving and persuasive as it went along. Concertmaster Martin Chalifour’s unfussy playing in the “Hero’s Companion” section conveyed the score’s humanity and compassion. The brasses, especially trumpet Thomas Hooten, had to be spot on and were. The large symphonic narrative, naturally paced by Mehta, concluded with quiet dignity.

Rick Schultz writes about classical music for the Los Angeles Times and the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.