There are few brighter stars in the Hindustani music firmament than Zakir Hussain. Whether on or off stage he is winsome charm personified. On the dais he is one of the fieriest, most consistently inventive and, to go Woody Guthrie, stretchingest musicians on the planet. The first concert of the seventh annual Alchemy Festival was Peshkar, a concerto for tabla performed with the BBC Concert Orchestra under the baton of Zane Dalal. It brought a mighty new twang to Hussain’s already multi-strung bow. Or, as he described it (less poetically), his ‘job description’.
The evening opened in a more customary recital manner with Hussain performing with the sitarist Nitadri Kumar. His name rang no bells. Rather than be swayed in any way, all prior research was parked. (Afterwards I discover that he is the son of sitarist Kartick Kumar.) Let his fingers do the talking, etc. They played Shri (Lord), a dusk rāg that in due course went into jhaptāl (10 beats divided 2+3+2+3 = 10) and afterwards teentāl (4+4+4+4 = 16), the rhythm cycle so bog-standard it acts as a portal to wonderlandish possibilities. As he played, there was a strong vibe of Ravi Shankar’s sitaristics. Kumar had a new generation’s take on playing and touch – at some remove to the more felicitous approach of, say, the Shamim Ahmed Khan generation of disciples. A player to listen out for, albeit perhaps one yet to prove himself ‘one of the finest future masters of sitar’ as Hussain introduced him.
The second half opened with an Alchemy bridge-builder, the BBC Concert Orchestra performing the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ exhilarating Karelia Suite. Its supposed raison d’être was to introduce a putative desi audience to Western classicism. Musically, it delivered the popular goods marvellously. Containing themes familiar from BBC television credits, whether it delivered the desi goods would be impossible to judge without an exit poll.
Peshkar: Concerto for Tabla and Orchestra had premièred in September 2015 with the Symphony Orchestra of India at Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts. Again conducted by Zane Dalal, in January 2016 it ‘transferred’ to Switzerland, to Zürich, Genf and St. Gallen. For the Royal Festival Hall it had a new orchestra keen to explore its concerto possibilities. The concerto is a western compositional vehicle to let, generally speaking, a melody instrument shine. Historically, previous East/West concertos stuck to that. The 1976 Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra collaboration between Ravi Shankar and André Previn is the prime example. The tabla introduces new vistas of possibilities and Hussain brought heightened rhythmicality and tuned percussion to the concerto form.
To lend a hand to the wheel of karma, Peshkar loosely means ‘to present one’s work’ in the description of Hussain’s first Peshkar programme on the Southbank. (For historian-minded readers, the Queen Elizabeth Hall excursion in December 1987 featured L. Shankar on violin, Shivkumar Sharma on santoor, T.H. ‘Vikku’ Vinayakram on hand and vocal percussion with Larry Coryell on guitar.) The Royal Festival Hall version was no relation. Under concert master, the violinist Charles Mutter and Dalal the concerto truly shone. If at times it was seat-of-the-pants stuff because Peshkar was still being ‘road-tested’, it was shiny seat-of-the-pants stuff. As a concerto, it has fixed western-style orchestrations with slots of pre-determined durations during which Hussain improvises on tabla. Like Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra had. Peshkar may have ‘applied raga’ elements to it but it is a work quite unlike anything before it in the canon. Two things are certain. It is nothing like anything Zakir Hussain has ever performed in Britain. Better still, it felt like history in the making. Rounded off nicely with a Q&A session with Hussain and Dalal for those who wished to stay after the music, Peshkar was an Alchemy coup.