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Indian, Chinese and Japanese Music (AMC)

Uday Bhawalkar, dhrupad: Purcell Room 25 July 2009
Chinese/Japanese Classical Music: Purcell Room 26 July

N.B The links are integral to this report.

For the weekend of 25/26 July the Purcell room was given over to Asian music under the auspices of the AMC and their Summer School (in 2002 we had attended one at SOAS with Bhawalkar's teacher).

Organisation is not AMC's strong point. We arrived early for the Saturday children's pre-concert event to find it set up but "postponed"...

Uday Bhawalkar's dhrupad recital was rewarding, as an earlier one at Bhavan had been three years ago and many of our comments apply again.

We were supplied with CVs for Bhawalkar's two hour recital but no helpful programme notes and his few words introducing the rags were inaudible, leaving us westerners feeling outsiders.

There were two ladies fingering their tanburas, which Uday tuned for them meticulously on stage. The pakhawaj player sat immobile for half an hour or more before it was his turn to join in. Gradually the range of the notes grew and the tempo increased. Bhawalkar seemed to be sculpting the music with expressive hand and arm movements, leading to a conclusion ecstatically singing "Shiva, siva" to elaborate improvisatory flourishes.

There were six microphones on stage and though the amplification was discreet and modest, whether any at all was necessary for a small audience in the front third of the Purcell Room is questionable? *

The next night was better attended and tightly organised with 4 "sets" allotted precise timings, 22 mins for each of the solo instrumentalists and 35 for the drumming finale by the British Tamashi School of Taiko-Do, introduced with a poem before all hell was let loose!

Does not SBC have a responsibility, even for out-sourced events, to comply with recognised decibel limit standards? I was prepared for a likely onslaught and had furnished myself with ear protectors against likely amplification in the concert; there was no obvious sign that the drummers were protected? After some minutes, when the stage had filled with drums and drummers I departed, having first been impressed with the skill and performance flair of the lead drummers.

But how totally misconceived to have given this show in the Purcell Room; why not instead as a post-concert event in the foyer (which had been well set up for performance at the beginning of the weekend)? Putting the Tamashi Taiko-Do out there would have allowed the instrumental soloists a little more latitude for their timings inside.

In reverse order, so as to finish on a high: Dr Hotta-Lister, a Koto/Sangen teacher who had passed her examinations, we were told, played both instruments, and sang, with her eyes glued to the scores - quaint to see the pages being turned 'back to front'! One item depicted "autumn insects and beating washings". She looked nervous, with rigid movements and percussive sounds distorted by surely quite uncalled for and excessive amplification which meant, for listeners at the sides, most of the sound came from loudspeakers left and right of the stage. That issue has been taken up by Musical Pointers repeatedly, and was again brought to the attention of the organisers. Amplification cannot be safely left to performers, who often don't hear what the audience hears, nor to sound engineers, whose main experience is often with pop events.

Preceding those disappointments, the first (Chinese) half had been magical. Sun Zhuo was a beautiful young lady and her fluid gestures enhanced the expressiveness of her music in the Qinzheng style, though to our ears it seemed a litle too often to rely on sweeping the strings, rather like a 19th C harpist. For an equivalence, see a lovely YouTube video.

The first item was the one that made the journey really worthwhile. Prof. Zeng Chengwei, a "world class Sichuan master", produced some of the most exquisite moments I had ever heard on any instrument. We were assured that the guquin is one of the most ancient and sophisticated instruments of China, and I would not argue. The subtlety and delicacy of his playing was something to remember with awe; and he makes the instruments too... The guquin is plucked with the right hand and the left modifies the sound with special effects, notably bending the notes with smooth glissandi which are a dominate feature (I wonder whether Gloria Coates, western mistress of the glissando, is familiar with the guquin?). Again, YouTube is well supplied for Musical Pointers readers. Interesting short videos on YouTube, Three Variations of Yangguan Pass, Autumn Water and Meditation in stillness are well filmed to give a clear view of how the sounds are produced (which was not obvious in Purcell Room). Given the Summer School connection, an introductory explanation/demonstration would have helped many of us.

Peter Grahame Woolf


Image: A qin should be hung vertically, so the wood won't gradually curve

* 7/7/09 I wonder if you might draw attention to these comments by a colleague (Editor of another music review publication) about a hobby-horse of ours, amplification at South Bank Centre:
Dear Peter,
I was surprised to learn from you that amplification was used for a Purcell Room concert! This would seem wholly unnecessary given that the venue is relatively small and the sound carries effortlessly. It's difficult to imagine anything in the Purcell Room, including speech, requiring amplification and I imagine the volume of sound would have been irritating - - -