Ravikiran concert breaks new ground

The Melharmonic concert in progress. Photo: Special Arrangement  

On November 8, an unusual concert took place in Wisconsin, centred on the creations of Muthuswami Dikshitar (1775-1835) and Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827); performed by Chitravina N. Ravikiran and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO), with the music arranged by Ravikiran and baton wielded by conductor Andrew Sewell.

The city of Madison has officially declared November 8 as Melharmony Day.

A proclamation by Mayor Paul R. Soglin cited major composers Tyagaraja, Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi, Dikshitar, Syama Sastri and Bach, Mozart and Beethoven for their iconic contributions to melody and harmony in world music.

Melharmony is a term coined by Ravikiran, which refers to the principled and aesthetic combination of melodic structures (such as Indian classical) and Western harmony (including classical/ jazz/ pop or other systems).

In theory, melharmony can work with any well-evolved melodic-harmonic fusion of systems which broadly use 12 notes per octave.

The concert showcased the range and scope of melharmony against the backdrop of two of the greatest composers of all times and places who happen to have lived within only a few years of each other.

The evening opened with the WCO presenting Beethoven String Quartet op. 74, also known as the ‘harp quartet,’ since it uses pizzicatti (plucked notes on the violin) as an important mode of musical presentation. It is acclaimed for its virtuosic first violin part, deftly executed by Suzanne Beia, and its mercurial changes of mood, from sombre to gay, calm to wild.

In contrast to the dramatic Beethoven quartet, Ravikiran and Srinivasan played two well-known Dikshitar compositions. The first was ‘Ramachandram’ (Vasanta), played with a sprinkling of swara improvisation.

The more introspective ‘Shree Kamalambikayam’ (Sahana navavaranam), which was performed with all the exquisite ornamentation that marks Dikshitar’s slower compositions, contrasted well with the more upbeat Vasanta piece earlier.

Another Dikshitar piece, listed on the programme as a ‘surprise’ to be played between the melharmonic compositions, was ‘Kalavati Kamalasana Yuvati’ in Yagapriya (that Dikshitar calls Kalavati).

Ravikiran noted that this raga was considered dissonant in Carnatic but most 21st century Western audiences usually appreciate such ragas due in part to their resemblance to Western blues and jazz idioms; and this was the case.

The three melharmonic compositions — with fanciful titles, reminding one of the names of pieces by Tchaikovsky and Grieg — are complex arrangements of Dikshitar pieces. Each has an introduction and interludes composed in the Western manner by Ravikiran, but without forsaking the rules of each of its raga or altering the melodic integrity of the composition.

In some of these pieces, long and sophisticated, telescoping korvais were written into the orchestral music, posing a rhythmic challenge to the musicians in the orchestra, to which they responded with skill and enthusiasm.

‘Master of the Mountain’ is based on Dikshitar’s ‘Parvati Patim’ in Hamsadhwani, whose scale has special melharmonic properties, which can make it most amenable to both Eastern and Western ears when orchestrated well.

‘Snow Princess’ in Hemavati (based on ‘Shree Kantimateem’) was the most extensive and sophisticated composition on the programme; it revealed Ravikiran’s expertise in handling a Western ensemble in all its potential for delicacy and power. The highly dramatic composition was heightened by Ravikiran’s passionate improvisations.

‘Spring Energy’ (based on Dikshitar’s ‘Shree Saraswati Hite’ in Manji) ended the concert with vigour. Again the orchestra provided a convincing reading of Ravikiran’s music.

(Prof. Robert Morris of the Eastman School of Music is a well-known Western composer who has, among other things, researched the musical properties of Indian and other scales that further the concept of Melharmony.)

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2021 11:58:08 PM |

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