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The Flute Raman Trio Weave a Magical Textural Web to Close Out the Drive East Festival

Yesterday evening was the final night of the New York edition of this year’s Drive East Festival of Indian music and dance at LaMaMa. Lucky residents of the Bay Area will get to witness the debut of the California version of the festival, which begins Aug 22 at 7 PM with a performance by sarod virtuoso Alam Khan at the Goode Performance Group, 401 Alabama St. in San Francisco. You can get in for $28; keep in mind that year after year, many of the shows here in New York routinely sell out fast

A pickup version of bansuri flutist Raman Kalyan’s Flute Raman Trio gamely rose to the challenge of closing night festivities here. It seemed that the bandleader had brought his whole arsenal of axes, in various shapes and sizes neatly arranged at the front of the stage. He ended up using just four of them, mostly a standard-issue model but also a misty-toned bass flute and a small model for some especially high notes during a crescendo in the evening’s big central number.

The trio began with a relatively brief raga in the north Asian pentatonic scale, the violinist shadowing Kalyan’s spare introductory phrases. As the call and response developed, there came a point where his glissandos and short bursts became impossible to replicate on a stringed instrument, so she backed toward the shadows with more spare, resonant washes. Through rises and falls and hypnotically spiraling motives, they wound up joyously and ended with a flourish.

The centerpiece of the night was raga Rasikapriya, the very final raga in the 72-raga cycle. Perhaps because it’s at the end of such a vast lineage, it’s a gorgeous, often very saturnine theme. Kalyan and the rest of the group seemed to revel the most in the moments where it took on a chromatically slashing, Middle Eastern intensity. The violinist anchored her shivery, sharp ornamentation with grave, low washes while Kalyan spun effortlessly from silken spirals to moody resonance. The mridangam player got plenty of chances to show off every possible variation on the central sixteen-beat cycle and made the most of it, urged onward by bandleader.

The three closed with a medley of catchy carnatic themes, including an especially energetic, downwardly cantering melody recognizable from the previous evening’s concert. The Flute Raman Trio get a second challenge, providing a coda to the San Francisco edition of the festival on Aug 26 at 5 PM; cover is $21.

Thrilling, Purposeful Veena Music from Nirmala Rajasekar at This Year’s Drive East Festival

Last night’s headline performance at this year’s Drive East Festival – the New York edition of one of this hemisphere’s most exciting annual Indian music and dance events – featured Saraswati veena player Nirmala Rajasekar and her kinetic quartet. This time out, Rajasekar – heir to an eight-generation legacy of veena players who also sing – was in a particularly emphatic, rhythmic, purposeful mood. She made breathtaking yet extremely terse use of the instrument’s low register, judiciously ornamenting her often spacious phrases with voltage-spiking upward slides as well as vigorously bending, shivery ornamentation. The material spanned the centuries, from ancient carnatic themes to the late 20th century “Recent, to us, means the last hundred years,” Rajasekar grinned.

The group behind her – Balaji Chandran on ghatam, Srinivasan Venkatakrishnan on mridangam and her daughter on vocals – supplied a rippling, kaleidoscopic backdrop. They got the concert going with a goodnatured take of a Sri Thiruvotriyur Thyagyyar composition utilizing raga Sahana, rising from a thoughtful, spare alap to a jaunty doublespeed romp.

Mother and daughter sang a salute to Ganesh by Sri Papanasan Sivan, utilizing raga Tilang, over a clickety-clack swing that was practically a clave.  The high point of the concert was a thrilling, dynamically rich take of Sri Shamya Shatri’s Mari Vere Gathi, on raga Anandha Bhairavi, a theme that originated in folk music. Singing without a mic, Rajasekar wrung every ounce of suspense from its allusive, often brooding modes, through an uneasily steady introduction through insistent peaks, to a delicious series of downwardly stairstepping riffs.

Much as this was about adrenaline, it was also about sly rhythmic jousting, a trope that the group would work to the point where they’d almost run out the clock, at the end of a rainmaker rage by fellow veena player and composer Shri Muthuswami Dikshidhar. Sometimes coyly, sometimes strikingly, Rajasekar interpolated snippets of other ragas, especially early on before she led the percussionists on a seemingly endless tour of rhythmic ideas.

The group closed with a brief but dramatic and often fiery ode to bravery and then a tantalizingly short, benedictory outro spiced with the shadowy, vigorously ornamented lows that Rajasekar had been working so memorably throughout the evening. For those on the west coast, she’s playing the San Francisco edition of the Drive East Festival at the Goode Performing Group Annex at 401 Alabama St. on Aug 25 at 8:30 PM; tix are $23. And the New York festival concludes today, Aug 19, at LaMaMa at 66 E 4th St. with dance starting in the afternoon and then a 5 PM concert featuring carnatic music for bansuri with the Flute Raman Trio. You can get in for $21.