Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Tom Morley on Ravi Shankar & Philip Glass: Passages

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series Tom Morley gives his thoughts on the Britten Sinfonia’s rare performance of the Philip Glass / Ravi Shankar collaboration Passages, with the composer’s daughter Anoushka Shankar playing the sitar.

Prom 41: Alexa Mason (soprano), Anoushka Shankar (sitar), Ravichandra Kulur (bansuri), Gaurav Mazumdar (sitar), Britten Sinfonia / Karen Kamensek (above)

Philip Glass & Ravi Shankar Passages (1989-90)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 15 August 2017 (late night)

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

ARCANA: Tom, how would you describe your musical upbringing?

There were two main influences in my musical upbringing. The first came from the local church choir which I sang with three times a week. Most of what we sang was very traditional although there was a piece by Messiaen which got wheeled out every now and then which was pretty out there.

Secondly, my parents were musical so I remember them playing and singing around the house. I’ve also got memories of sitting down with my Dad to listen to a recording, his taste is pretty eclectic so I remember listening to Phantom of the Opera, Donald Where’s Your Troosers, Return to Innocence by Enigma and Night Boat To Cairo by Madness!

What experiences have you had up until now with classical music, and have they been good or bad, or both? (Examples are great if you’re able!)

Aside from the choir, I played trumpet in an orchestra for a short while but decided it wasn’t really my thing. At university I had a few lectures on classical music but once again, struggled to find anything that really spoke to me apart from the odd piece here and there. I wouldn’t say my experiences with classical music have been either good or bad, probably somewhere in the middle.

What if any have been your previous experiences of the Proms?

I’ve never been to a Prom. I sometimes look through the schedule and think about going but have got round to going to see one.

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

Radiohead – They always seem to keep their music interesting and challenging and I like the cinematic quality to some of what they write as well as the artwork and concepts that go along with the music.

Snarky Puppy – These guys are brilliant musicians, they’re really supportive of music education and they look like they’re having a great time on stage. Definitely more of a live band than a studio band.

The Beatles – An obvious choice, but they did so much to push the boundaries of popular music and created so many memorable tracks in a such a short while as well as having a massive influence on music and culture.

What did you think of the concert?

I loved it. I can honestly say I’ve never heard anything like that before. I think I was particularly fortunate to be at this one which was a real meeting of styles and ideas and the first live performance of the piece with great musicianship all round.

What did you think of the environment in the Arena?

Not what I was expecting at all. When we walked up the steps the atmosphere changed completely. Some people were standing, some were sitting or lying down and there was a buzz of excitement but when the music started everyone was listening intently. I think this was helped by the fact that this was a late night performance and in some ways, it felt more like a gig than a concert and even though we were close to the back, we still had a good view of the stage.

Is there anything you would change about the Proms?

More of the same please. If they’re all as varied and unique as this one then there’s nothing I’d change, stick to the same formula. If I had to change one thing, it’d be an outsiders perception of the proms. I thought that it was a strictly ‘classical’ music event but there seems to be a real range of different styles and types of music being performed. It’d be great if more people realised how accessible the proms are, even if you don’t typically listen to classical music.

Verdict: SUCCESS

BBC Proms 2017 – Anoushka Shankar and the Britten Sinfonia with Karen Kamensek perform ‘Passages’

Prom 41: Alexa Mason (soprano), Anoushka Shankar (sitar), Ravichandra Kulur (bansuri), Gaurav Mazumdar (sitar), Britten Sinfonia / Karen Kamensek (above)

Philip Glass & Ravi Shankar Passages (1989-90)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 15 August 2017 (late night)

You can listen to this Prom here

Passages is a good, old fashioned piece of classical crossover as it really should be, an example of just how well different forms of music can feed from each other if the composers are flexible and like-minded about their project.

Philip Glass was certainly enthusiastic on discovering the music of Ravi Shankar in Paris in 1965, laying the roots for a collaboration between the two, finally engineered by Private Music in 1989. The result was the intriguing Passages, an hour-long work that sits squarely between the two in terms of style. It is a ‘to me, to you’ work, each composer finishing the other’s thoughts in full musical clothing.

Initially on hearing the strains of Offering and Sadhanipa, however, you might have wondered if the two composers actually met in the construction of the piece. Offering is so irrefutably ‘Glassy’ in style, bubbling beneath the surface before moving into those persuasive cross rhythms he executes so effectively, but it has extra colour in the orchestration to mark it out. Likewise, Sadhanipa stands out with its use of the rich timbres of the Eastern instruments brought in by Shankar as part of the fusion.

Gradually the sounds come together, the distinctive figurations of Shankar complementing the rigorous methods of Glass, and taming them attractively when appropriate. To experience this at the Proms was a treat indeed, the ever-flexible Britten Sinfonia sitting centre stage but often in thrall to the group of musicians positioned on their left, led by Shankar’s daughter Anoushka (below).

Hers was a particularly captivating presence, the sounds from her sitar at once alluring and lovingly wrought, a complement to the superb string playing of Jackie Shave and her Britten cohorts. Soprano Alexa Mason deserves a mention for her floated yet penetrating delivery above the textures in Channels and Winds, while the brass and woodwind were particularly strong in the passages where Glass asks for a more mechanised approach. Meetings Along The Edge was particularly powerful because of this.

The score was full of colourful surprises, which the audience lapped up, and did not suffer for the ‘bar lines’ introduced by conductor Karen Kamensek for the necessity of concert performance. Happily this did not rein the music in, for it was clearly intensively rehearsed, and the Britten Sinfonia players, no strangers to playing music across cultural and artistic borders, responded to the contours of Shankar’s melodies and the clear direction of Kamensek as naturally as they did for the Glass elements.

The resulting collaboration may be a little on the episodic side, but Passages is never less than intriguing, and in this late night performance its qualities were very much to the fore in music that pulsed and shimmered before our very eyes.

One gripe – it would have been nice to credit the orchestral players in the program. Great though it is to have a free and colourful document of the occasion, it seems a shame not to name the players responsible for helping make this night a memorable one.

Ben Hogwood

You can hear the original recording of Passages on the Spotify link below: