After such a long break, it is not necessarily certain that the artists will return to public life smoothly. But tonight’s Celtic Connections concert at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall betrays no sign of that prolonged absence, as Anoushka Shankar revisits her father Ravi Shankar’s Concerto No. 3 for Sitar and Orchestra.
The first half of the concert presents the Qawwali Orchestral Project, which fuse Qawwāli (a form of devotional chanting in the Sufi Islamic tradition originating in 13th-century India) with the classical structures and chord progressions of Western music. Where traditional Qawwāli was intended to put the listener into a trance-like state, the effect here is one of active emotion, conveying the devotion and love felt in the words even to those who cannot understand them. .
The Hollywood strings arranged by composer Rushil are a far cry from traditional Qawwāli accompaniment – that is, nothing, since Qawwāli was historically performed without instruments. It also wasn’t traditionally performed by women, which makes lead singer Abi Sampa’s performance (already powerful to the point of being physically soothing) all the more remarkable. It is fitting that Rushil chooses the uplifting Man Kunto Maula ending to reveal to the audience that Sampa is the first female Qawwāl in the UK. “It’s been the honor of my life to write music for her to sing along to,” he tells us.
Despite the differences in musical cultures at play, the end result is solid and cohesive. Sampa’s singing and that of the choir led by tabla player Amrit Singh blend perfectly with the orchestral accompaniment provided by the Scottish Chamber Orchestramaking a first-time listener amazed to learn that they don’t hear the tracks in their native form.
Image: Anoushka Shankar and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra by Samantha Barr
The two halves represent a sort of cultural fusion, but whereas before intermission we see one serve as the backdrop for the other, once Anoushka Shankar stages the emphasis is on adapting tone and style so that the two musical traditions come together. Their seats may have remained static, but the orchestra finds itself center stage in this halftime and wastes no time reveling in the attention.
In the string and woodwind solos, you can hear how the players learned stylistically from the sitar, altering their articulation in order to approximate its distinct sound. Some of this is pre-written into the score, such as the glissando slides in unison with the sitar, but it’s nonetheless a challenge easily met by the SCO, led by Clark Mundell.
The second half begins and ends with beautiful pieces from Shankar’s solo career, with Concerto No. 3 sandwiched in the middle. His playing leaves the audience mesmerized throughout, but never more so than in the concerto’s third movement which demands a level of virtuosity from the soloist. It might have been more appropriate to rearrange the running order, closing at the movement’s triumphant conclusion, but on an evening so focused on cultural fusion, there’s no point in clinging tightly to notions whether or not encores have a place in orchestral performances.