JOHN MAYER (1929-2004): Violin Concerto No. 2 “Sarangi ka Sangit”, Concert for the Instruments of an Orchestra, JONATHAN MAYER (b.1975): Sitar Concerto No. 2, Pranam for Sitar and Orchestra.
Catalogue Number: 03W059
Label: First Hand Records
Description: Before "World Music" was a thing, before "East-West Fusion" became fashionable, there was John Mayer. He studied comparative musics and cultures, and worked as an orchestral violinist in London in the 1950s; founded various improvising ensembles that brought together the traditions of Indian music and jazz, and composed music that brought together the classical styles of India and of Western concert music - the sort of thing for which the renowned Dr L. Subramaniam became famous decades later (08U054). The exceedingly fine Violin Concerto No.2 is an excellent example of the success of his approach. Both Eastern and Western idioms appear, undiluted, yet the concerto sounds as a cohesive whole. The first movement, titled "Alap" after the slow improvised introduction to a classical Indian composition, that introduces the Rāg on which the piece will be based, is actually the most Western, exploring the relationship between Rāg and dodecaphony, in an approachable mid-20th century concert idiom lent an exotic tinge by the modal inflections of the long, meandering solo lines, but otherwise not venturing far from the modern extension of the concerto tradition. An exhilarating propulsive toccata for soloist and percussion follows, suddenly interrupted by the resonant sonority of the tambura, the drone instrument with sympathetic strings that underlies the textures of much Indian classical music. The violin cadenza that follows is in the style of a Rāg improvised performance, though the following section introduces stately counterpoint from the orchestra’s horns, which leads to the concerto's sublime slow movement. This is cast as "Prashna – Uttar", question and answer, between the soloist and orchestral sections. A final brief movement in Jhala style (the final exuberant close of an Hindustani classical composition) races to the work’s conclusion. The Concerto for the Instruments of an Orchestra is unusual and inventive in title, form, and content. It exudes an appealing "strangeness" throughout, while remaining entirely accessible; it was successfully played in London under no less a figure than Haitink, but never found its way into its natural habitat at the Proms, and is well overdue for revival. As the title suggests, it showcases specific sections or combinations of instruments more individually than in most Concertos for Orchestra, and the movements are subdivided into sections of strongly contrasting character. The first begins with a sense of portentous expectancy, which gives way to a lively processional; the next part is a heavy, limping march with sinister undertones; then a lively dance, one of the few occasions in these works in which the composer’s affinity with jazz is obvious. An excitable little scherzo acts as a coda. The orchestral percussion is prominently and inventively used throughout. The slow movement is mysterious and eerie, a still, evocative lament among the ruins. By this stage in the work, the modal melodies and instrumental inflections make increasingly clear the Eastern origins of the music, and this is further emphasised by the following scampering little scherzo and trio. A darkly ominous introduction, punctuated by towering climaxes seems to portend a large, dramatic finale, but instead a propulsive jhala-coda races exuberantly to the work’s conclusion. Mayer fils is a virtuoso performer on the sitar, and at least in part because of the unique sound of the instrument, his concerto announces itself as a work of Indian art from the outset. The first movement draws on three rāgas, which constitute the melodic material of the music, played in authentically elaborate and ornamented style by the soloist. The rich, harmonically lush orchestral accompaniment is drawn from the same modal material but of course sounds nothing like the accompanying material of Indian classical music, instead fulfilling the function of the orchestra in a traditional Western concerto, which is the structural model on which the piece is firmly based, cadenzas and all. The gorgeous central slow movement, heavy with intoxicating perfumes, is based on the seventh century Persian mode Za ref Kend (‘String of Pearls’), and very obviously, even to Western ears, evokes a wholly different cultural background in its melodic structure and style of playing. The energetic, propulsive finale is based on a traditional seven-beat rhythm and a theme derived from a rāg, now used in such a way as to sound more "westernised" than the rest of the concerto, the sumptuous orchestration lending the music an extrovert, Hollywood (Bollywood?) cinematic flamboyance. Think of Pranam as a kind of neo-romantic concertante dance overture with Indian soloists, and you won’t be wide of the mark. It follows the Indian dance-form Kathak, beginning with an improvisatory sitar solo which introduces a melody which is explored with sumptuous orchestration and the participation of the thrillingly flexible and exuberant tabla in a series of vital and vigorous tableaux. Sasha Rozhdestvensky (violin), Jonathan Meyer (sitar), BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Debashish Chaudguri.