April 12, 2017

Sitar Player Anoushka Shankar Dazzles at McCarter Theatre

AT HOME ABROAD: London-based sitar player, Anoushka Shankar, captivated a full house at McCarter Theatre last Thursday as she played material from her 2015 album, “Home.” (Photo courtesy of Harald Krichel; CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

On Thursday, Grammy-nominated sitar player and composer Anoushka Shankar presented a concert of hindustani music to a rapt full house at the McCarter Theatre’s Matthews auditorium.

Ms. Shankar’s current tour centers on material from her 2015 album Home. The strictly Indian classical nature of the compositions marks a return of sorts for Ms. Shankar, whose preceding four studio albums had integrated elements of many disparate genres and musical traditions. Like her father, the world-renowned late Ravi Shankar, Anoushka Shankar is a champion of both her instrument and its versatility.

Ms. Shankar’s concert in Princeton was bookended by evening ragas. In the first section of these — the alap — Ms. Shankar improvised passages that served in part to introduce listeners to the melodic nuances and characteristic phrases of the particular raga, unaccompanied except for the drone of the of the two tanpuras supporting her. In part due to the poor quality of many recordings, listeners tend to think of the sitar as possessing a harsh tone, but Ms. Shankar coaxed a soaring, full sonority from her instrument: the sharp attack of her notes quickly yielded to honeyed melismas, clear through a cloud of shimmering resonance.

Her phrasing in the alap sections was lyrical and free of any strict tempo. These sections flowed seamlessly into jod sections, in which Ms. Shankar’s playing gained a distinct rhythmic pulse and a greater sense of urgency, before moving to concluding gat sections. The gats focused on composed themes interspersed with Ms. Shankar’s improvised variations, and these sections also included her percussionists. The dramatic arc of both pieces was completely spellbinding in its effect: they became increasingly fuller, faster, and more complex until the works’ frenzied conclusions, drawing audience and performers both into a heady focus.

For the evening’s second piece, Ms. Shankar sat flanked by her formidable ensemble, arranged in visual and stereophonic symmetry around her: tabla and mridangam percussionists on the outside (Ojas Adhiya and Pirashanna Thevarajah, respectively), shehnai (a piercing, oboe-like instrument) and bansuri (bamboo flute) to their inside (Sanjeev Shankar and Ravichandra Kulur), and the two tanpuras on the inside (Kenji Ota and a young woman not included in the program on bass tanpura), closest to her. Ms. Shankar was a gracious ensemble leader, readily sharing the spotlight with her fellow musicians, prioritizing the group’s cohesion over her own playing. Often, sitar and the two wind instruments joined in perfect melodic unison, or in close harmony, limning a scintillating melodic filigree.

At one point in the piece, Mr. Kulur put down his flute and and picked up a khanjira (a tambourine-like South Indian instrument), and began a percussive joust with Mr. Adhiya and Mr. Thevarajah that was one of the evening’s high points. Each sought to outdo the last in his virtuosity, hands grazing head of his drums like the fluttering of a bird’s wings, before, in an instant, the next took over in a further showcase of nuance, speed, and rhythmical mastery. The three went round and round, in ever-quickening circles — eventually trading off only a few notes at each turn — before the pace relaxed once again and the full ensemble came back in.

Throughout the evening, Ms. Shankar lead her group with grace and good humor, beaming and nodding to her fellow musicians, cajoling them to ever-greater musical intensity, laughing and exclaiming aloud after moments of particular brilliance. Such moments were plentiful, and the concert as a whole was a joy to attend. With luck, Anoushka Shankar will make many returns to the Princeton area.

For information on future shows at the McCarter Theatre, visit their website at mccarter.org or call (609) 258-2787.