Musical Passage to India for Students at Oakland East Bay Symphony
April 3, 2014
The short trek three blocks from the Oakland School for the Arts to the Paramount Theatre was also a recent passage to India for the students in Omid Zoufonoun’s classical ensemble class. Last week, SFCV’s latest WriteOn! Workshop prepared a group of OSA kids to review the Oakland East Bay Symphony’s “Notes From India” concert. SFCV writer and workshop leader Jeff Kaliss partnered in the classroom on Friday afternoon with Indian-American composer Juhi Bansal. Apart from the process and techniques of observation, note-taking, and writing, the pair talked about Indian classical music and about Bansal’s Where Shadow Chases Light, which received its world premiere at the Paramount on Friday evening. After accompanying the students to the Paramount, Kaliss returned to the OSA on Tuesday, to help participants finalize their reviews and to further examine Indian music and its relationship to the Persian musical tradition, in which teacher and composer Zoufonoun is trained. The results of this exploration are shared with you here; please share your reactions with the students.
Maureen Ochi Sides
Perhaps Oakland’s most salient quality is the diversity of its population, and the symphony representing Oakland is obligated to express this important aspect of Oakland as well. Time and again, the Oakland East Bay Symphony has done an exemplary job of depicting Oakland’s mélange of ethnicities. They exemplified this mission on their March 28 concert, “Notes from India,” which brought together a collection of pieces from all different types of history periods, composers, and instrumentation. The program opened with excerpts from Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass’ Passages (1970) which was followed by Beethoven’s seminal Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92, a world premiere by innovative young composer Juhi Bansal, Where Shadow Chases Light, and rounded out with Ravi Shankar’s Sitar Concerto No. 1 featuring Stephen Slawek on sitar.
Passages and Symphony No. 7 were the more traditional pieces, and even they could not have been less alike. Passages stayed true to Philip Glass’ minimalist style, but grew monotonous, with very little variation in dynamic or tone. (Granted, my interest in minimalism is minimal, at best.) Symphony No. 7, however, provided drama and diversity to the first act: Its second movement contains the famous funeral march-like theme and variations, building up from the bass instruments, which is followed by a light hearted third movement, traditional to the classical era. Principal oboist Andrea Plenarski’s tone continually rang out over the orchestra, giving the piece line and elegance from the first solo to rising above the strings and singing out in the last movement.
“Ravi Shankar’s Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra No. 1 strayed the farthest from Western music, diminishing harmonic support and emphasizing melody and rhythm.” - Maureen Ochi Sides
Juhi Bansal’s Where Shadow Chases Light is named after an Indian poem Bansal “(doesn’t) like very much at all.” The piece covers a wide array of textures, utilizing the brass and/or woodwinds to create a specific tone that would slowly develop into a new tone, articulated by the strings or percussion, reminiscent of the manner of the French Impressionist composers. Different images were created throughout the piece, ranging from an oncoming storm to a mountaintop to a whale, all executed in the orchestra’s colors.
Additionally, the contrast of high and low pitched instruments were used by Bansal in a way that both brought out their immense differences and beautified them. Indian influence is vaguely present through well-reserved use of modes, but the piece sets itself apart from many modern pieces (including the first piece of this program) in that from first to last note, the entire audience was captivated and engulfed in the vast surrounding of sound Bansal created.
Unlike its program predecessor, Ravi Shankar’s Sitar Concerto No. 1 struggled with balancing the sitar and the orchestra. It strayed the farthest from Western music, diminishing harmonic support and emphasizing melody and rhythm. Ward Spangler gave an exemplary performance, executing his drum part with amazing precision and energy. Slawek played the piece with enthusiasm and elegance, but the last movement dragged on too long, becoming more tedious for the audience than entertaining. Nevertheless, Michael Morgan brought the program to an exciting end.
The Oakland East Bay Symphony’s “Notes from India” was an amazing homage to the Indian community’s music, musicians, and composers.
Channels (Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass) was written in a minimalist style. The strings played patterns and simple harmonies with occasional entrances from brass and woodwinds. I could not hear the flute from where I was sitting, but that could be because the Paramount Theatre does not have the most flattering acoustics.
Beethoven’s 7th Symphony was played to perfection. I am a Beethoven fan, but this piece was played with rhythmic integrity and sensitivity to dynamics which made for a really interesting and powerful performance. Principal oboist Andrea Plesnarski did a fantastic job; her solo was played beautifully with enough power that I could hear it from my unflattering seat.
Where Shadow Meets Light was an interesting modern piece and a great contrast to the first two pieces. It was a musical painting of a lot of different textures, including some dissonant harmonies which added a layer of color to the overall piece. It also included a technique that I had never seen before, the use of a bow on cymbals, which was used to make sliding sounds that became a motif throughout the piece. The piece also included epic strings with twisted woodwind melodies and some interesting extended techniques in the percussion.
Ravi Shankar’s Sitar Concerto was a fitting end to an epic concert. The soloist was Stephen Slawek, who is one of two people allowed to play this masterpiece. Interestingly, Slawek performed in traditional Indian attire with a rug platform. The music of the piece included a lot of unison, which is not common in Western classical music, and often the piece traded melodies between the sitar and the orchestra. I really liked the combination of bassoon and sitar; it was the timbre that caught my ear, because of how different it was.
If the goal of the East Bay Symphony was to create a program that was going to appeal to the communities of Western classical music and Indian classical music then they succeed with flying colors.
When you think of classical music, you’re bound to think of it in the Western sense of the word. However, other cultures have classical music as well, and “Notes from India” provided a beautiful fusion of Indian and European classical music both.
In Passages, co-written piece by Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass, the melody that floated through the flutes was lovely — when not drowned out by the repetitive rhythms of the strings, that is. After this relatively modern piece came a sudden twist: Beethoven’s Symphony No.7 in A Major, performed excellently and without a single hitch. But the question it provoked was: Why Beethoven amid a program of modern pieces? Perhaps it was to give us something to contrast Indian classical to, or perhaps it was to give die-hard Western classical fans a reason to come. Whatever its purpose, it was well-received.
“Where Shadow Chases Light sounded like a score to an award-winning Sci-Fi flick — eerie and unconventional, but addictingly beautiful.” - Rae Hendricks
After intermission came the freshest piece on the list, Where Shadow Chases Light by Juhi Bansal. This modern piece sounded like a score to an award-winning Sci-Fi flick — eerie and unconventional, with an almost undetectable meter, but addictingly beautiful.
The finale for the night, another Ravi Shankar piece titled Sitar Concerto No. 1, was arguably just as good as the other Shankar piece, but for different reasons. This concerto was not as melodic as the others, and transported me elsewhere, to a dreamlike state. And, from the utter silence of the audience, I suspect it did the same to them. I would watch “Notes from India” a thousand times over, if ever given the chance.
There were many highlights in “Notes from India,” but the clever ways in which sounds of Indian and Western music were blended certainly takes the cake. Western major and minor scales were mixed with Indian Ragas to create a concert filled with diverse and lovely melodies. The excerpts from Passages featured repetitive and simple, yet constantly evolving themes. The rhythms had the audience swaying, but the lack of dynamics and the balance issues between the winds and strings made it a bit mediocre compared to the rest of the program.
Beethoven’s 7th Symphony seemed out of place at first glance. After hearing both pieces on the first half, however, its presence on the program made sense: It was used to compare and contrast the characteristics of Indian and Western classical music. It is easy to hear that both use repetition, but in different ways. The first half, then, was an introduction to the two different styles of music that would be explored and fused in the second half.
The world premiere of Juhi Bansal’s Where Shadow Chases Light started off the second half of the program. I had the privilege of meeting the composer earlier that afternoon and hearing about where she was coming from. Bansal grew up with Indian classical music playing constantly, but she has not studied it in detail. She approached her piece with the mindset of a contemporary composer with the sounds of Indian music in her head. As a result, her piece had more harmony than is typical in the music of India. There were still many sounds that were not Western that ornamented the piece, including some beautiful harp patterns, the violin solos, and the ornaments and slides used throughout the orchestra. The brilliant mix of contemporary music and the sounds from Juhi’s childhood made this piece my personal favorite.
“Beethoven’s 7th Symphony seemed out of place at first glance … It was used to compare and contrast the characteristics of Indian and Western classical music.” -Carmen Perez
Ravi Shankar’s Sitar Concerto began with a static solo. Even when the rest of the orchestra came in, the piece remained static. There was little to no harmony in this movement, so there were more solos and unison parts than anything else. The ornamentation and note-bending kept this movement interesting. The second movement was upbeat and had more going on. There was a great use of pedal notes, usually found in the tambura, a type of lute used for droning accompaniment, as well as featuring the bongos, used in place of the pitched tabla drums. The third movement was a fusion of the first and second movements. It was busy, but felt meterless. The melodies had a mode similar to the second movement. The last movement was the longest of all. It focused on a single idea for a whole section and then switched. The audience became restless near the end, and I found myself bored with the finale to the concerto.
Although the concert was too long, it was nicely played and well programmed. But most importantly, it reached out to not only the Indian community, but also to anyone looking for something new and refreshing.
Although Passages was performed correctly, it became — whether or not this was intended — really monotonous and repetitive with little dynamic variation. It often felt like the eighth-note and triplet accompaniment overpowered the main thematic ideas and melodies; the balance was off. Because it was the first piece, the audience was really attentive and fresh, but you could see near the end of the piece that they seemed indiferrent and in some sort of music-instigated trance. Conductor Michael Morgan was being very strict with the time, and appeared somewhat uptight. (He seemed more relaxed later on into the concert.)
Beethoven’s 7th Symphony started somewhat abruptly, before the audience had finished clapping for the first piece and was ready. The second movement was incredible — not too fast or too slow, and the balance was good. In the last movement, I noticed a bit of rushing, which was more of an unintentional tempo change. The first half of the concert ended with a bang and lots of applause.
Where Shadow Meets Light by Juhi Bansal actually changed my view on modern classical music. She incorporated sounds and moods that I’d never heard before and brought to life a whole other style of music. The last piece of the concert was the four-movement Sitar Concerto by Ravi Shankar. I enjoyed seeing a piece that revolved around the sitar (since I've never actually seen it in concert before). The inflections and phrases the sitar player made were interesting and new to me, since Western classical music is so different in its phrasing compared to Indian classical music. The orchestra wasn't always together with the sitar player, Stephen Slawek, and at a couple of points it seemed as though they were lost.
Michael Morgan did an excellent job. He always looked very professional and attentive, always cuing sections and keeping a steady beat, while giving dynamic and phrasing hints to the orchestra.
The excerpt from Passages started off with a dream-like section. I was surprised to hear a tonal center because I was led to believe that this was a traditional classical Indian concert. (I later found out that the Indian theme would be the second half of the show.) Although the bass section was doing a fantastic job, I had a hard time hearing the flutes and thought that the horn section overall could have been utilized more.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was long, but the first movement had a great use of dynamics. The only complaint I have is that I could hear the oboe much more than the flutes. The second movement started with a Star Wars-like feeling, in A Minor. I personally enjoyed this section. The entire fourth movement sounded like an ending — you anticipated the next measure was going to be the ending note. The conducting was great and the movement had an “end of the world”-like theme.
Juhi Bansal’s Where Shadow Chases Light starts off with a “stereotypical” contemporary classical theme, with extended techniques (instruments using different techniques than what they were designed for.) I was instantly turned off by this, but as the piece progressed I started to get more interested. It built very nicely.
The atmosphere at the Paramount Theatre Friday night was spectacular. It was the normal crowd plus a lot of Indian audience members. Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass’s Passages was a little too repetitive for me (but hey, it’s Philip Glass.)
In a presentation to our class, composer Juhi Bansal said that she didn’t try to incorporate Indian styles in her music or promote it; she just created a piece with influences from all types of music. The Sitar Concerto by Ravi Shankar was played by Stephen Slawek, and he is one of only two musicians allowed to play the solo (along with Shankar’s daughter.) I thought he played beautifully and it put me in a sort of Zen trance.
I enjoyed Passages. The dynamics were expressed well and the orchestra blended well together. The ending was abrupt; it made me feel full of energy and ready to go run a marathon.
Juhi Bansal’s Where Shadow Chases Light was the most exciting piece of the concert. The use of the harp was awesome and the percussion part was worthy of some serious head banging. To be blunt, this was cool.
The last piece, the Sitar Concerto by Ravi Shankar, was great, but too long. I was intrigued by the sound of the sitar, an instrument I don’t often hear. By the third movement, Raga Adana, I started to get bored. The sitar began to sound like someone talking. In fact, it sounded a little like my geometry teacher. As the music progressed, I noticed that the tempo kept changing and that I couldn’t really tap my foot, which actually frustrated me. By the end of the concert I was ready to stretch my legs and leave.
Overall I enjoyed this concert a lot, (especially Juhi's composition!) but I wish it was shorter.
"Notes from India" included a variety of music, from modern day Indian themed music to Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. Beethoven, being traditional, Western classical composer of the concert, had melodies being passed around through all instruments. Where Shadow Chases Light, was a modern composition by Juhi Bansal, mainly focused on the sitar. It contained many phrases from both Western and Indian music culture.
Beethoven’s 7th Symphony was, of course, very melodic and full of harmony. The main theme, was of course, recognized by, if not all, then most of the audience at once. It contrasted with Ravi Shankar’s Sitar Concerto with sitarist, Stephen Slawek. Slawek had the theme under his fingers, and he bent and shaped it. Although this was an orchestral piece, many parts of the music had the orchestra only playing a single line. Slawek was the main focus.