By Don Heckman
It wasn’t clear what to expect at Ravi Shankar’s Disney Hall concert Thursday night. There had been two previous cancellations, and the venerable Indian artist turned 91 in April.
His musicians took the stage first – a pair of percussionists, another sitar player, a flutist, a tanpura player and a Shankar assistant. And when he finally appeared, walking slowly, carrying a cane, his face adorned by a new, white beard, one couldn’t help but wonder whether the ensemble would bear the heaviest burden of musical responsibilities.
At first, in the opening alap of the evening raga that began the program, it seemed as though that might, indeed be the case. Although Pandit Shankar’s melodic lines were as lyrical as ever, the connections between phrases were somewhat blurred, a marked change from the articulateness that has always been his stock in trade. But as the rhythm of the jhala began to rise, a new dynamism began to flow through his playing.
From that point on, it was Shankar, the great artist we know so well. Even more so, in fact, in the sense that his precision and imagination seemed invested with an extraordinary, overarching world view. As though every moment of his long, productive career, reaching back as far as his youth as a dancer/instrumentalist in his brother’s dance ensemble, was flowing through his expressive fingers.
In addition, Shankar did indeed allocate ample time to his associates. Several of the ragas used the rhythmic pattern called tintal, whose 16 beats have a certain symmetry for Western listeners. And one especially gripping set of exchanges between tabla players Tanmoy Bose and Samir Chatterjee was a mesmerizing display of percussive brilliance. Occasionally, fellow sitarist Parimal Sadaphal and flutist Ravichandra Kulur added echoing counterlines, beautifully illustrating the melodic interplay that attracts so many jazz, pop and classical artists to the subtleties of Indian classical music.
Shankar concluded the evening with a suite-like assemblage of several ragas. Always at the center of the action, he led his ensemble through the spontaneous complexities of the music with glances, body language and shifts of accent and emphasis. It was, like the balance of the evening, a rare and memorable opportunity to hear and see one of the world’s great musical masters in action, generously offering the fullest expression of his transcendent creative gifts.
An evening to remember.