L. Subramaniam: Live Last Night

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Live Last Night

By Mark Jenkins

Many Indian classical virtuosos have collaborated with Western musicians, but L. Subramaniam is a step closer to the West than sitar or sarod players.

The 62-year-old maestro, who performed Thursday evening at Freer Gallery of Art, plays a European instrument: the violin. Subramaniam has written for movies and symphony orchestras, yet at this concert he didn't stray from Carnatic (South Indian) music.

(Read the rest of the review after the jump.)

The violinist and his three accompanists, who included son Ambi Subramaniam on second iolin, performed "Tanama Pallavi," one of the Carnatic tradition's principal ragams. A ragam (raga in northern India) specifies a scale, rhythm and basic melody, but as Subramaniam noted, "playing the notes alone doesn't make it a raga."

What does are subtle improvisation, delicate ornamentation, spirited interplay and -- particularly in the case of Subramaniam, who's been compared to Paganini -- extraordinary speed. In the opening section, the violinist was attended only by an electronic drone that seemed a little too prominent. But the music expanded thrillingly once the violinist was joined by Mahesh Krishnamurthy on mridangam, a two-headed drum, and Satish Pathakota on the tambourine-like kanjira. For most of the 50-minute piece, Ambi Subramaniam inserted only brief responses to his father's exuberant phrases. But the two became equals in the concluding duet, pacing each other through a furious climax, complete with playful false stop before the final crescendo.

The two percussionists and the younger Subramaniam opened the concert with improvised variations on "Kriti," a set of devotional melodies. The music was fleet and fluid, but without the intricacy of the evening's principal piece.

By David Malitz |  September 25, 2009; 2:51 PM ET Live Last Night
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