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Posted at 10:04 AM ET, 03/ 4/2011

Crossover: NSO goes to India

By Anne Midgette

In Friday's Washington Post:

Tabla meets West as NSO's "India" concert seeks crossover convergence, by Anne Midgette.

I've written quite a bit before about crossover projects. Orchestras tend to approach crossover in one of two ways: pop-culture crossover (involving video game music, film music, or pop and rock stars like Sting performing with orchestra) and world-music crossover, in which the orchestra explores music of a non-Western tradition. Speaking very generally, world-music crossover tends to be more thoughtful. It's yielded the Silk Road Project, which has turned out to be a fertile lode for talented young musicians pushing beyond the conventional boundaries of a classical career (Brooklyn Rider, one group that came out of that project, is playing in DC on Saturday night). A whole cadre of Chinese composers -- Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Bright Sheng, and many others -- have worked traditional Chinese elements into Western composition; the New York Philharmonic has played pipa concertos.

The Zakir Hussain concerto the NSO is playing this weekend, however, merges both kinds of crossover: contrasting different musical traditions, and getting a big star to write a piece for orchestra. It's the latter aspect that trips it up. The problem is that it's difficult even for highly talented musicians to write interestingly for orchestra if they aren't trained to do so. Hussain's composition was orchestrated by someone else. I submit that a more successful approach is to have a composer versed in the ways of the Western orchestra sit down with a musician like Hussain and see what kinds of cross-pollination they could create together.

What are your thoughts on the attempts of Western orchestra to explore other musical traditions? What makes it work for you, and what makes it fail? Are there any examples of interesting crossover projects you think more people should know about?

By Anne Midgette  | March 4, 2011; 10:04 AM ET
Categories:  Washington, random musings  
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Comments

Lou Harrison was a composer who pretty actively explored different music traditions, and I'll be looking forward to hearing his music at the Post-Classical Ensemble this weekend.

It's great to have orchestras explore different musical traditions, and the more angles of approach they take, the better. What matters most to me personally is the quality of the music, not its origin. Sometimes I feel that the "otherness" of a different musical tradition stands in as a gimmick to make up for the fact that the piece doesn't have convincing musical ideas.

However, in some cases the quality isn't even so important because what is really at issue is simply the recognition and embracing of different traditions. I was at the concert last night, I noticed that there were a lot of Indians in attendance, and a lot of them seemed to really enjoy Hussain's piece. I imagine it must've been nice for them to have their country represented at the NSO.

Posted by: robertcostic | March 4, 2011 11:51 AM | Report abuse

I'm so glad this is happening! I hadn't checked your blog in a couple days but when I found out Saskia Rao-de Haas was coming to the US to play at the Kennedy Center I thought I'd check the post to see what was up.

And to robertcostic:

"I noticed that there were a lot of Indians in attendance, and a lot of them seemed to really enjoy Hussain's piece. I imagine it must've been nice for them to have their country represented at the NSO."

So many more of us immigrants are appreciative of having an opportunity to see some of our native arts here in the US than many people would think! And I think it's good for folks involved in Western Arts organizations to realize they no longer have a monopoly on "high art" anymore either!

Posted by: JonSilpayamanant | March 7, 2011 12:07 AM | Report abuse

Oh, and your questions:

"What are your thoughts on the attempts of Western orchestra to explore other musical traditions?"

The irony is, and Greg Sandow and I have discussed this a bit before, that there's already a long tradition of works written for hybrid orchestras. Seems like only in the West do we not this kind of exploration or fusion with the exception of specific events like these.

"What makes it work for you, and what makes it fail?"

One of the reasons I don't often go to the Symphony is because they rarely play newer works--since a number of these "crossover" pieces have been recently written, they will get performed even less often, which is a shame. The difficulty is getting the Western orchestras to be open to learning different styles/ornaments/techniques so that it doesn't just become a handful of ethnic soloists mashed together with a Western Orchestra or an "Orientalist" characterization of the non-western culture.

"Are there any examples of interesting crossover projects you think more people should know about?"

Plenty, but probably too many to list here.

The big Arabic Orchestras during the 40s-60s that incorporated tons of extra full string sections and other western instruments but playing in Arabic style.

Mugham opera and the other Mugham orchestra fusions of Azerbaijan.

Chinese traditional orchestras, one of which was reviewed at the post recently, which often incorporate a full cello/bass section in lieu of the failed attempt at making bass versions of the erhu.

in pre-revolutionary Iran, there were a coupe of orchestras that mixed full sections of classical Persian instruments with Western instruments.

Bollywood filmi orchestras--always a blend of a Western Orchestra augmented with indigenous Indian instruments (and even some unrelated to either) that have been used to score the significant output of the Bollywood industry since the 40s.

I seem to be running out of text room, but I think it might be better for me if I go blog about this now!

-J

Posted by: JonSilpayamanant | March 7, 2011 12:28 AM | Report abuse

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