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A Sitar concerto, a premiere by Marc Lowenstein, and a surprisingly enjoyable early work by Bizet packs Royce Hall

LACO 7: Shankar Plays Shankar at Royce Hall (Brian Feinzimer)

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra performed a program featuring a sitar concerto by Ravi Shankar (performed by Anoushka Shankar), a new Sound Investment commission from composer Marc Lowenstein, and a (seemingly) old staple from Georges Bizet.

Marc Lowenstein and I have interacted quite a few times – informally as ships in the night in the hallways at CalArts, where Marc is officially on faculty in the Experimental Pop department – then formally, with Marc as music director/conductor in The Industry’s Sweet Land. I was told of his talent as a tenor; composer Juan Pablo Contreras, who I knew through singing in the same tenor sections at USC, hearing of my admittance into CalArts’ MFA program, immediately told me to study voice with Marc, who had apparently had a “former life” as an operatic tenor with more than 25 roles under his belt. I’ve graded his students’ theory exams, with a joke-per-sentence rate so dense it was dizzying; the extra credit question had something to do with wallabies. 

And yet, through all this, I had never heard any of his own music; he was so involved in employing his talents to help sharpen the aural skills of CalArtians and direct operas with The Industry, that I had somehow missed yet another hat on his rack. On your Facebook profile, you only really have enough space to put a short description or role at the institution for which you work. Marc’s Facebook profile says “Shortstop/Second Base at CalArts.”

“HaZ’màn HaZèh הזמן הזה” begins with the sound of a singing bowl and a bed of plucked strings underneath an oboe melody. The music is immediately dynamic; searing string lines give way to an explosive, thick bed of low frequency activity. In an introductory video posted online, Marc describes the piece as mystical, fusing samba, Buddhist mysticism, Jewish klezmer and Balkan music, the last two of which becomes most obvious as a squealing clarinet dances atop an insistent groove in 7. A cello solo, shimmering trills in piano, and finally the piece ends in a devastatingly simple two note refrain, sung out over a lush string chorale, unchanging from its identity despite the twisting harmony around it. The vocalist is hidden, singing from within the ensemble rather than as a soloist. 

The work is enigmatic, a view into the influences and interests of an even more enigmatic musician; the cacophony of musics somehow blending together could have only come from someone as varied as Marc Lowenstein. The work deserves repeat listenings and I look forward to the life the piece will have beyond this concert; I can’t help but feel that Marc’s piece was buried in the curation of this concert; ‘Shankar plays Shankar,” makes it clear what the intended draw is, but Marc deserves equal billing.

I get the feeling that people attended this concert for one of two reasons, and the Bizet wasn’t necessarily one of them. Certainly, it’s not quite the draw that a new work or a sitar concerto is for most people, and yet, though this work isn’t necessarily in the focus of this publication, I would be remiss to neglect mentioning how much I enjoyed listening to Bizet’s Symphony no. 1 in C.

The comparisons to Beethoven are easy to make – the piece was written in the span of about a month, shortly after Bizet turned 17, in 1855. At the time, Bizet was studying with Charles Gounod at the Paris Conservatoire, whose first two symphonies bear well-documented influences from Beethoven. Beethoven had already died by 1827, which would have granted ample time for his legacy to proliferate amongst his students and followers throughout Western Europe. Many of the early Romantic trademarks of Beethoven are there; a tendency to separate the strings from the winds and brass, assigning melodic or accompaniment roles to each half of the orchestra and only occasionally blending the two. The piece, a student work, was suppressed by Bizet to the point that he had never heard it performed in his lifetime; it is now one of his most frequently performed pieces, with some of its solos used as orchestral excerpts.

Music Director Jaime Martín conducts with an infectious, joyful exuberance. He invigorates, and when he’s not needed, he invites, then steps out. The connection between Martín and the orchestra is evident; cues are often given with the slightest opening of his fingers, a gesture that is perhaps an inch wide, yet marvelously clear in its intent. It’s not realistic to say this with any certainty, but his music-making hints at a warm demeanor, devoid of much ego.

A platform, draped with a thick red and black rug, was brought forward and placed in the concerto soloist’s position. A sitar was placed on top, prompting many excited families to walk up to the Royce Hall stage; doubtless many young beaming faces with Maestra Shankar’s sitar were posted online and sent to family that night.

Ravi Shankar’s work is most well known to the world outside of the Indian subcontinent through his collaboration with George Harrison of the Beatles, and is credited with introducing much of the western world to North Indian classical (Hindustani) music. Part of his work in bringing his music to the West also involved writing three concerti for Sitar and orchestra, the third of which was performed tonight.

The trademarks of a North Indian classical recital were immediately recognizable; not only in the solo instrument and the scales (ragas), transcribed and rebuilt for the orchestral instruments, but also in the structure of the composition. The first movement began with a short virtuosic phrase, completed by an ending cadence, played three times and timed precisely to line up with the beginning, beat 1, of the next section. If you’re familiar with this musical tradition, then those descriptions should be familiar; this was likely a mukhra (a short, one cycle composition often at the beginning of a solo recital) marked at the end with a characteristic tihai (a “cadential” figure marked by its [usually] verbatim repetition, three times, which [usually] precisely hits sam, or beat 1 of the next rhythmic cycle). Then came what I would label a peshkar section (a type of theme-and-variation composition which has a kind of lilt, differentiating it from the similar qaida), then, after some developmental material, closed with a chakradar – a longer composition which is characterized by repeating the entire thing three times, not just the tihai.

In a work that bridges two musical traditions together, attention must be paid to how the two musics are blended, and especially in how these ideas are to be communicated. How much can we expect a patron of western orchestral concerts in London or Los Angeles to know of the Hindustani classical tradition? How much should a LACO string player know of the tintaal theka, a 16 beat rhythmic cycle which makes up at least half of their 3rd movement? 

A well crafted piece and performer can communicate these ideas to an audience despite the differences in their assumed knowledge. A great one does so while entertaining its listeners. Shankar and Shankar, on Sunday night, wowed, by finding the aspects of a music that is common to both, if not all musical traditions. A solo is a solo in any language. Virtuosic fireworks communicate through all practices, and the collective musical output of LACO and Anoushka Shankar wowed, not in spite of, but thanks to the nexus of two musics coming together. 

‘Shankar plays Shankar’

LACO’s 2022/23 season concludes with a celebration of global and local traditions! GRAMMY-nominated sitar virtuoso Anoushka Shankar performs her father Ravi Shankar’s Third Sitar Concerto. The concert also features a world premiere by LA-based composer Marc Lowenstein, the final Sound Investment premiere of the season, and a brief excursion to France with Bizet’s Symphony No. 1 in C major.  

7:00pm. Sunday May 21, 2023