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To many, Anoushka Shankar is the best sitar player alive today. There is little doubt that she is the most famous player in Indian classical music circles, with an influence that spreads beyond Carnatic music to genre-fusing world music. She has been performing professionally since the age of 13, and her 20-plus year career includes international tours, 14 studio albums (most of which are completely her own original music), six Grammy nominations, and many other awards. Thankfully, her latest tour included a stop right here in Durham, presented under the auspices of Duke Performances..
The Carolina Theatre was completely packed for her performance with her ensemble. Just like Shankar's diverse influences and projects, the instruments on stage were a mixture of Eastern and Western – traditional Carnatic instruments were met with cello and piano. The textures explored in this concert were myriad and, despite the differences in temperament and timbre, sometimes it was impossible to separate the sounds of the instruments when they were playing in unison. The result was entirely unique and at times mesmerizing.
The concert, which was performed with no intermission in favor of continuous, long-form pieces, began with "Voice of the Moon." This is written in the Kirwani raga (the same as harmonic minor in Western music). It is serious yet elegant – pulsing phrases in the sitar, with pauses in between, communicate a sense of urgency. The music here was decidedly calmer than what came next, with the entrances of percussionists Ojas Adhiya playing the tabla and Pirashanna Thevarjah playing the mridangam. These two musicians were fascinating to hear – at times supporting the texture, at times "dueling" one another musically – the number of different intonations they coaxed from their instruments was dazzling. The tabla consists of a smallish pair of drums that produces an unexpected amount of different pitches. When played rapidly, the effect is mesmerizing. The mridangam is a cylindrical drum played horizontally, and with it Thevarjah produced a deeper bass, made even more present and booming with amplification. Speaking of which, each instrument was amplified, making it easy to hear the smallest intricacies of Shankar's lithe playing and the vibrations of the tanpuras, or drone instruments. At times, cellist Danny Keane provided a drone, at other times supporting the melody (but at all times very resonant). Ravichandra Kulur's flute, which has more of a Baroque recorder sound than a modern flute (being entirely made of bamboo), provided lyrical, airy melodies in place of vocals. This was the case for both "Traces of You" and "The Sun Won't Set," both of which were originally recorded with Shankar's half-sister Norah Jones singing the melody.
To close the concert, Shankar introduced and summarized the plot of one of her latest accomplishments – she has composed and recorded the music for the restoration of Shiraz, a 1928 silent film that was one of the first films made in India. Of course, they did not perform the entire score but rather a condensed version of highlights. It is a story of the tragedy and love that brought about the creation of the Taj Mahal; even in this shorter version, the music ebbs and flows with diverse emotions. This was true musically as well – while a long, graceful and gorgeous sitar solo opens, there are sections of rapid, exuberant polyrhythms that involved all the instruments at once, building to an intense apex. Later, a yearning melody soars in the piano, perhaps portraying the Emperor's heartbreak at his wife's death. It was a peaceful ending to a concert that had already spanned borders, genres, and styles.