An Evening with Shankar, Mehta and Strauss (Richard, that is!)

Anoushka Shankar
Walt Disney Concert Hall

The next time you hear someone say, “I’m going to say a word. Just tell me the first thing that comes to mind” and if that word is “sitar” don’t just blurt out, Ravi Shankar or India – tell ‘em Anoushka Shankar. She’s the daughter of the late and great musical guru/composer Ravi Shankar (a.k.a. that guy who introduced The Beatles to the sitar) as well as the younger half sister of jazz singer, songwriter and actress, Norah Jones. Friday the 13th might’ve seemed like an unlucky day for an opening night, but it was anything but. After thirty- five years of Ravi Shankar’s Sitar Concerto No. 2, Raga Mala lingering on the east coast, Anoushka was lovingly bringing it to LA Phil and the west coast.

Private sitar lessons from your superstar dad can be great, but one of the downsides could be that you struggle under his constant shadow of accomplishments. I don’t see that conflict with Anoushka – there is a joyful reverence for her father and classical Indian music, but she has also created an exclusive melodic fusion all her own. Spending some time with her discography will reveal that fact. Also, she has the ability to successfully weave Eastern and Western musical traditions together. That’s in the same vein as what Ravi Shankar has gifted us with his Sitar Concerto No. 2, Raga Mala.

Anoushka sashayed out onto the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage with conductor Zubin Mehta in a stunning, warm magenta sari flecked with gold. Mehta was the first ever conductor (and co-collaborator) of Raga Mala in 1982, just about a year after Anoushka was born. The grateful applause reluctantly subsided as Shankar took a seat on the Indian tapestry. After a few moments of fine tuning, she glanced up with an approving smile. Mehta smiled back.

A clank of percussion, a drum roll – and we were off in dramatic fashion. I closed my eyes at times, imagining myself floating on the Ganges River, a heavy mist covering the water—possible peril lurking about. As we moved from Presto on into the final Allegro, there were high winds (loved that wind machine!) and rolling thunder. All kinds of carefully calculated percussion spattered here and there and the other instruments answered back. I loved the interplay between sitar, violin, cello and harp. Eventually the rhythm grew more frenzied and I noticed another woman across the balcony from me, fighting the urge to dance. Somehow we managed to restrain ourselves, swaying in our chairs. Everything converged for a final, festive crescendo. How beautiful to have witnessed a masterpiece pass from a father’s hands to his very capable, very brilliant daughter.

Damn. Intermission. I didn’t want it to end.

“The next half is gonna be boring because it’s gonna be all white people”, the Indian girl sitting in front of me scoffed to a friend. Um, okay. They returned for the second half though, still texting on their iPhones.

Next up was Ein Heldenleben or A Hero’s Life, composed in 1899 and presumably the autobiography of it’s composer, Richard Strauss. Later on in life, his highly controversial interactions with Hitler and Nazi Germany made him anything but a hero in the eyes of many. Setting all that aside, this rumbling, sometimes arguing, sometimes weeping (fifty-minute-long) tone poem is a thing of beauty. It’s broken into six movements: The Hero, The Hero’s Adversaries, The Hero’s Companion, The Hero at Battle, The Hero’s Works of Peace and finally, The Hero’s Retirement from this World and Completion. My favorite part was probably the violin solo by Martin Chalifour – I almost cried. Google it, you’ll love it, trust me.

So remember, if someone says, “Ein Heldenleben” during that familiar word game I mentioned earlier, the first thing that should come to mind is – “Definitely not boring!”

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