Neither Philip Glass nor the late Ravi Shankar are at The Royal Albert Hall in person for, but rarely are two forces of absolute genius (a word not, for once, thrown in with careless disregard for its true meaning), felt with such tremendous force. Just as their original collaboration, released in 1990, is a blissfully brilliant melding of two cultures, so too does its live performance offer an abundance of cross-continental delights.
From our view from the heavens in a luxurious box the stage alone gives visual representation of these intertwining culture, with conductor Karen Kamensek leading the acclaimed Britten Sinfonia to the right, while Shankar’s daughter Anoushka takes the helm to the left, sat cross-legged and resplendent on a platform along with her own band of seven Indian musicians.
The evening is in many ways a playful duel of their two styles, Kamensek and Shankar swapping roles in the driving seat in turn. Sometimes, as on the opening piece Offering, drives of Western strings take the helm with a momentous, cinematic sweep, while at others the Indian contingent offer long, humid soundscapes. Both are tremendous in their own right and performed to a level of perfection worthy of their respective composers, the former imbued with lavish waves of strong, swelling majesty, and the latter with an exotic drone of enrapturing widescreen atmospherics.
The finest moments, however, come where these two gorgeous strains intertwine, wrapping themselves round each other for a singular push. Sometimes one or the other takes a higher place in the mix, the Western strings bending their sweep to the directions of the Eastern scales among the droning segments, for example, while occasionally it’s a straight-up rapid-fire exchange – flicks of sitar leaping gleefully into gaps left by the Sinfonia.
The performance runs the gamut of emotions, at times serenely tender and beautiful – Ravichundra Kulur’s composed, hypnotic vocal that greets the second half of the evening’s closing piece Prashanti, for example. At others it’s breathlessly intense, bracing bombast of the highest order, as an almighty clash of drums brings Meetings Along The Edge to a close, for example, or when Alexa Mason’s almighty soprano vocal joins the fray on Channels And Winds. It’s a performance of ebbs and flows, not just between sombre and exciting, but also between two traditions, and between the minds of two of our age’s most important musical forces.