Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The shape of things to come . . . .

The relative sparsity of recent posts herein is due in part to the process of re-imagining and enhancing both the format and the content of this blog, with the intention, as a first step, of adding pictorial and audio components, and subsequently, as time and resources permit, video clips. While a document in the written word alone has many advantages of a unified focus in its very singularity, a purely textual form also has its limitations and challenges, particularly in the multimedia dimensions of the new and evolving digital journalistic (and perhaps scholarly) universe.

In addition, the past two months have offered me the opportunity to experience a splendidly rich--in fact, too rich--sequence of concerts that I have attended with the intention of writing reviews. But I must in all honesty confess that I have not yet developed my chops as purely a reviewer who is always able to craft swiftly a review in the day or two following the event, after the decades I've spent in more timeless scholarly pursuits, with any given piece of writing evolving over a period of a number of days, if not weeks or months. Add to this the imperative of having some sort of "hook" (to use the trade term) to snare the reader's interest, which is particularly necessary given the current vast scope of writing on the Internet.

And finally, there is the issue of reader response--whether reinforcement (praise or appreciation always being welcome); enhancement (through additional contributions or observations from others, using what I have written as a point of departure to expand the scope of the original); or challenge (of a critical or disputative nature, so as to stimulate debate)--without which these writings do not move beyond their original premises.

In short, I have spent recent weeks in exploring ways of renovating and improving the content of my VOAWorldMusic efforts, and ask the blessings (in good South Asian fashion) of all who take the trouble of accessing this site, as well as your input as just outlined in the previous paragraph. At the same time, I'm also exploring avenues to make the format itself more dynamic and flexible, and welcome any thoughts you may have along these lines as well.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

El Sistema!

Last night was an absolutely astonishing concert by Gustav Dudarmel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra (Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar) in the Concert Hall of Washington's Kennedy Center. But tonight I have the opportunity to meet maestro José Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema and the man ultimately reponsible for the concert, the orchestra and its conductor, and I should like to meet him before I complete my review of the event. In the meantime, here is an updated version of an earlier post:

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I have just learned that I will be able to attend a concert next year of the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra here in Washington, led by the dynamic young conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, and presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society.

This extraoridinary young man (and the equally extraordinary ensemble) had first come to my attention when, earlier in the year, CBS' 60 Minutes aired a feature on the Venezuelan musical phenomenon, called El Sistema (The System), in which over a hundred young people's ensembles have been developed in the Latin American country, not only to nurture young musicians, but also to give youngsters from economically depressed and crime-ridden neighborhoods a chance to find self-esteem and confidence, and a future through music.

The concept was developed by José Antonio Abreu, an economist and musician who had studied piano, harpsichord, and organ to supplement his academic work at institutions which included the University of Michigan. In his description of the effects of the program, "A child's physical poverty is overcome by the spiritual richness that comes from music."

Children as young as two years are initiated into the program, learning the basics of music. Thousands of trained musicians participate in teaching their young students, who, as stated on El Sistema's Website, number 350,000 in 180 ensembles throughout the country. During the past 32 years, according to Dr. Abreu, some 800,000 children have participated in El Sistema. In the words of one instructor interviewed for the CBS program, "when they sit in one of these churches in the orchestra, they think they are in another country, on another planet, and they start changing."

El Sistema has attracted widespread media attention (listen to a BBC/WGBH program) and has been featured in a 2006 film documentary, Tocar y Luchar (To Play and To Fight), which has won a number of awards in international film festivals.

Performances of the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra, the program's flagship ensemble, have astonished audiences all over the world, under the leadership of conductor Dudamel, himself a product of El Sistema, and a prodigy who was recently appointed Musical Director of the prestigious Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, as illustrated in yet another episode of 60 minutes; see also a video portrait of the conductor by the prestigious label Deutsche Grammophon, which has released three CDs by the SBNYO.

I look forward to blogging on the concert, which will include a performance of Igor Stravinsky's revolutionary The Rite of Spring--which was probably the most influential piece of classical music to which I was exposed in my childhood. But more on that personal note later. . . .

Thursday, April 2, 2009

In memoriam Stuart Cary Welch, 1928 - 2008

This afternon will be a memorial ceremony at Memorial Church at Harvard University for Stuart Cary Welch, who was Curator of Islamic and Later Indian art at the Harvard Art Museum from 1979 to 1987, among other positions. For me, this will be a bitterwseet occasion, mourning Cary's passing, while celebrating the richness of his life and remembering his generous spirit, as well as his intense interest in the related arts of poetry and music.

I first met Cary in 1968 through Jim Rubin and Hyman Bloom (see my previous entry, and continuing here an exploration of connections between music and painting), when he kindly sponsored a house concert at his home from my sitar teacher, the late Ustad Ghulamhusain Khan, during a U.S. tour that I organized as a guru-dakshina (offering) following my becoming his ganda-bandh shagird (or lifelong disciple--see my earlier post.)

It is generally felt among seasoned lovers of Hindustani (north Indian) classical music that the best performances occur in a small gathering, or mehfil, where there is the greatest possibility of intimate contact, even interaction, between the performer(s) and the audience. And on that occasion at Cary's home, along with the performance itself, there was a continuing discussion among those present of some of the principles of the arts of India, with Cary sharing some of his expertise on Indian art. Of course, one looked around the walls of his home and saw various exquisite samples of Indian miniature painting, of which he was one of America's most accomplished collectors.

When I came to teach at Harvard in 1973, at every possible opportunity I sat in, along with my senior colleague the late Annemarie Schimmel, in Cary's superb annual lecture courses, which each year focussed on some period of either Mughal or Rajput painting. A person of considerable financial means, and a collector of exquisite taste and eye, Cary had gathered over the years a range of masterpieces in these genres, which were on rotating display at the Fogg Museum, where as noted above he was Curator of these genres.

In 1980 I was approached by H. Peter Stern, then and currently President of the Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York, to organize an annual concert of Hindustani music in the Indian room at the Fogg in collaboration with Cary, with the intent of having a musical mehfil among some of the greatest works of Indian miniature painting, with traditional floor seating and no amplification (something that has come to mar the majority of small concerts these days). Thus, in a room that could accommodate, in addition to the artists, 40 people at most, we were able to experience in natural sound wonderful musical evenings, in what was indeed a recreation of the divaan-e-khaas, or the private audience of the Mughal emperors.

On a previous recording trip to Indian with Jim Rubin in 1968, I had met the late vocalist, Pandit Amar Nath, and I had hoped in the ensuing years to arrange a U.S. performance for him.
He sang in the style of the much revered vocalist, the late Ustad Amir Khan, who had developed his own own distinctive style of singing khayal, the dominant style of Hindustani vocal music, and who is considered one of the greatest vocalists of the last half of the Twentieth Century. We were fortunate to arrange for him to come to Cambridge exclusively to inaugurate this series.

The second year, we arranged for a performance by Ustad Nasir Zahiruddin Dagar and Ustad Nasir Faiyazuddin Dagar, known as the Younger Dagar Brothers, who were at that time the leading practitioners in the dhrupad style of vocal music, the most ancient of the north Indian classical vocal genres. The Dagar family played the central role in the propagation of dhrupad during the second half of the Twentieth Century, and is generally credited for saving this august tradition from extinction.

In the third year the performer was Ustad Imrat Khan, the world's acknowledged master of the comparatively rare surbahar, which he is credited has having brought as a solo instrument to the concert stage. Followign an opening solo on the that instrument, he took up his sitar, and was accompanied (also on sitar) by his eldest son, Nishaat Khan, and his youngest son, Shafaatullah Khan, on the tabla.

(Because it seemed to me a missed opportunity to have only the one exclusive concert by these outstanding artists, in the second and third year's I organized a Saturday night public concert, following the previous night's event in the Fogg, which we termed divaan-e-'aam, referring to the hall of public audience of the Mughal emperors. This was held in a large room in Hilles Library which could accommodate perhaps two hundred people, most sitting in traditional style on the floor, with chairs arround the walls to accommodate those for whom floor seating was difficult.)

But the defining experience of the Fogg concerts was precisely the experience of divaan-e-khaas, with Cary presiding over the occasion with his inimitable combination of erudition, wit, and warm hospitality, and the extraordinary visual treasures he had collected over the years adorning the walls in truly regal glory.

(More to come following today's memorial.)