Program Notes | Apr 5–7
Amjad Ali Khan: Samaagam: A Concerto for Sarod, Concertante Group and String Orchestra
Amjad Ali Kahn’s concerto fuses Northern Indian traditional instruments with a Western orchestra. Samaagam is Sanskrit for “flowing together,” an apt metaphor for Khan’s compelling concerto. He draws heavily on nearly a dozen ragas, the melodic building blocks of India’s classical music. Listen for drones and improvisatory passages that are cousins to jazz solos. Sarod, tabla and the NJSO’s principal string players all have their opportunity for exercising spontaneous musical creativity.
Scheherazade features an obbligato role for our excellent concertmaster, Eric Wyrick. His recurring solo violin line represents the spellbinding voice of the Sultana as she relates the 1001 tales of the Arabian Nights, thereby staving off death by entertaining her husband. Scheherazade’s music is sinuous and seductive. The sultan’s theme, in the brasses, is barbaric, forceful and masculine. The writing is enchanting—a perfect blend of exoticism and impeccable orchestration.
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AMJAD ALI KHAN: Samagaam: A Concerto for Sarod, Concertante Group and String Orchestra
AMJAD ALI KHAN
Born: October 9, 1945, in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, India
World Premiere: June 20, 2008, in Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland
NJSO Premiere: These are the NJSO-premiere performances.
Duration: 45 minutes
Amjad Ali Khan is arguably the most celebrated Indian classical musician since Ravi Shankar. His instrument, the sarod, is a cousin of the sitar. Both are members of the lute family: plucked string instruments with a hollow body. Unlike the lute (or the guitar), the sarod does not have frets on its fingerboard. Sarods are slightly smaller than sitars and tend to have a darker-tinged sound. In appearance, they consist of three principal parts: a round resonator belly (called pyala, and usually enclosed with parched goat skin), a central fingerboard and a peg box. Sarods have 17 to 19 strings, including drone and sympathetic strings that vibrate with the melodic strings. Most players use a plectrum. The instrument is central to the Northern Indian Hindustani musical tradition, where it is usually accompanied by tabla—a pair of North Indian drums, one conical, the other kettle-shaped.
Khan comes from a distinguished family of Indian classical musicians and sarod players; one of his ancestors may actually have invented the sarod. He studied the instrument with his father and was performing in public by his early teens. His international career took off when he was 18, and he eventually branched into teaching both sarod and the traditions of Indian classical music. In this country, he has taught at University of New Mexico and at Stanford.
The request for a sarod concerto came from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Khan is an enthusiastic lover of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and other Western composers, and he has previously collaborated with many Western musicians. He is also keen on American jazz, whose reliance on improvisation has a direct parallel in Indian classical music.
His concerto fuses Western and Eastern elements, beginning with its title. Samaagam is a Sanskrit word that means a confluence, or a flowing together. The work’s multiple sections do flow logically from one segment to the next, often with an improvisation for sarod, tabla or the concertante string players providing the transition. Khan has adapted into Samaagam more than 10 ragas, the melodic building blocks of Indian classical music. The concerto’s individual sections and subsections take their names from traditional Hindustani ragas. Khan has written:
The concerto aims to preserve the essence of both Indian and Western traditions so that they can flow into each other without artistic compromise. The aim is, through this process, to joyfully explore the common musical DNA of both traditions. I often say that every raga has a soul and every musical note is the sound of God. In Samaagam, several different ragas are presented. Some make only a fleeting appearance, while others are explored longer.
The entire concerto comprises beautiful compositions in various Ragas, I feel that it is like a Bouquet of Ragas. I have given utmost importance and attention to the importance of composition in the concerto. I believe that by playing the essence of a raga for a shorter period, you are not diluting it. I believe in being traditional and not conventional.
Kahn’s combination of Eastern and Western instruments lends his music a unique sonority. The harmonies are often slow-moving, with drones providing a soothing background to the intricate, rhapsodic solo passages. In faster sections, rhythms are deceptively simple and endlessly varied. This is music will engage the brain while soothing the soul.
Instrumentation: flute, bassoon, strings, three solo sarods and solo tabla. The first chair strings have concertante parts.
RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Scheherazade, Symphonic Suite, Op. 35
Born: March 18, 1844, in Tikhvin, near Novgorod, Russia
Died: June 21, 1908, in Liubensk, near St. Petersburg, Russia
World Premiere: October 28, 1888, in St. Petersburg. The composer conducted.
NJSO Premiere: 1936–37 season. Rene Pollain conducted.
Duration: 42 minutes
The concept of Orientalism carried great sway in late 19th-century Russia. The land itself spanned thousands of miles from west to east, subsuming vastly different cultures within its boundaries. When he began work on Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korsakov had recently completed his friend Alexander Borodin’s unfinished opera, Prince Igor, whose music is heavily tinged with eastern flavor. The exotic harmonies of eastern culture exerted a strong influence on Rimsky’s own symphonic suite.
In his memoirs, My Musical Life, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote of Scheherazade: “I had in view the creation of an orchestral suite in four movements, closely knit by the community of its themes and motives, yet presenting, as it were, a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and designs of Oriental character. … All I desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders.”
He placed a note at the head of his score recapitulating the story. Sultan Shakriar, convinced that all women are faithless, determines to put each of his wives to death after the first night. Clever Sultana Scheherazade saves herself one night after another by captivating her husband with different fairy tales and adventures. Driven by curiosity, the sultan repeatedly postpones her execution, eventually abandoning his bloodthirsty plan.
Curiously, in later life Rimsky-Korsakov spoke of aversion to an overly specific program for the suite. While he acknowledged that the solo violin represented the silken voice of the gifted Sultana as she related her stories, he held that his technique was a musical unifier, rather than a programmatic device. The composer wanted the story to act as a catalyst for each individual listener’s imagination, rather than having us interpret the music as a literal illustration of the literary program.
Scheherazade was sketched in Petersburg in early 1888 and completed during the summer while Rimsky-Korsakov was on holiday in the country. It was approximately contemporary with his Russian Easter Overture, and the two works were premiered on the same concert that December. Along with his Capriccio espagnol, Rimsky-Korsakov felt that Scheherazade and the overture “close[d] a period in my work, at the end of which my orchestration had attained a considerable degree of virtuosity and warm sonority without Wagnerian influence, limiting myself to the normally constituted orchestra used by Glinka.”
Rimsky-Korsakov rightly regarded Scheherazade as the peak of his orchestration achievement, though not necessarily his finest musical achievement. Perhaps the greatest achievement of this suite is that the composer succeeded so completely in evoking the lush, exotic orientalism of his subject without the use of unconventional instruments. It is a veritable festival for the orchestra. Colorful solos for nearly every instrument ingeniously weave together the different melodic lines that connect the music and evoke the magical spirit of One Thousand and One Nights.
Instrumentation: three flutes (two doubling piccolo), two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones (third doubling bass trombone), tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, harp and strings.