Asian Music and Dance

Alchemy 2010 — The Music of AR Rahman

AR Rahman is a composer who comes trailing a mean list of plaudits, panegyrics and platitudes behind him. For Alchemy 2010 he summoned a team to match the statistics. In an article that ran on the day of the concert he spoke to the Metro’s Arwa Haider (and a fair few London commuters) about “a 100-piece orchestra, a choir and guest soloists from India on sitar and flute”. Numerically, it was only a slight overegging of the orchestral pudding, although the 32-strong Metro (no relation) Voices did bolster the head count somewhat.

Rahman’s London Philharmonic Orchestra vision was predominantly one seen through a Western rather than an Indian prism. After the ‘vagueness’ of themes from Elizabeth: The Golden Age and Couples Retreat, when the melodic theme from Roja – his breakthrough switch from Tamil- to Hindi-language film – began, it felt strangely like bumping unexpectedly into an old friend on the street. For me, the themes from Bombay (yes, shame on me, even Bombay!), Lagaan (‘Tax’), Slumdog Millionaire and Lord of the Rings never quite pulled off the same trick.

The Rahman that first seduced me musically was Rahman of the Tamil-language films Thiruda Thiruda and Pudhiya Mugam (on one handy CD) and the Roja soundtrack (similarly released by Magnasound in 1993). What singled the boy wonder out was his melodicism and his intense grasp of rhythmicality. That rhythmicality, as opposed to talam (rhythmic cycle), was the paramount, the essential Rahman ingredient missing from the concert. For example, at the risk of inviting charges of critic-as-wannabe-arrangement-consultant, had the concert opened with ‘Azeem-o-Shaan Shahenshah’ from the 2007 swords ’n’ saris costume drama Jodhaa Akbar with Rahman-strength brass fanfare, timpani and unison percussion and the Metro Voices chorale blasting out, what a wonderfully alternative musical world of Rahmania the LPO might have made of it. 

Ultimately, no one concert is ever going to do justice to the cavalier waywardness of Rahman’s vision. This one felt like him tasting the orchestral possibilities of his music with the massed banks of western instruments and big choir delivering the power punches with a professionalism that the Indian film industry cannot yet deliver. Particularly praiseworthy were the contributions of the female vocalists Alma Ferovic and Ann De Renais, Katie Bedford and Naveen Kumar on metal and bamboo flutes, the trombonist Mark Templeton and percussionists Andrew Barclay and Simon Carrington. 

The concert finished, as it had begun, with deva-bearing children and women theatrically processing along the aisles in the spirit of Diwali (the Festival of Lights) or Vaisakhi (the Spring Festival). The deva lamps flickered flame-free in the spirit of Health and Efficiency, Health and Safety or whatever. Hold that image. It might serve as a metaphor for the concert. Next time, more adventurousness, more thrills…and, please, fewer Western films and productions. The demographic of the concert-goers was massively tilted to non-white faces. South Asia is still Rahman’s core audience.



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