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Tag: drive east festival 2019 review

Thrills, Gravitas and Cinematic Color with the Nakshatra Quartet at the Drive East Festival

Considering how much great live music there is in New York, a festival has to be pretty special to be worth going to four out of five nights during the work week. But this year’s edition of the Drive East Festival has been that good. And it’s been as diverse as always. So far this week’s concerts have featured laments, ragas both epic and fleeting, a harrowing Metoo-themed dance piece set to a live score, and blissfully peaceful improvisation. Last night’s performance by violinists Arun Ramamurthy and Trina Basu’s Nakshatra Quartet was the most viscerally thrilling and solo-centric of all of them up to this point. But it was also about dynamics, and pushing the envelope, and keeping a clear eye on the grim realities of this year’s political environment…and what we can do about it.

Ramamurthy and Basu would probably laugh if someone called them New York’s #1 power couple in Indian music, but it’s impossible to think of another family with equally formidable chops. When they perform as a duo, it’s hard to tell who’s playing what unless you’re watching. In this ensemble – which also included Jake Charkey on cello and Dan Kurfirst on percussion – their individuality was much more defined, although the two have a near-telepathic rapport.

Basu came to carnatic music from a classical background, and plays with her violin on her shoulder. In this context, she revealed a lighter, more delicate tone than her husband, who’s been immersed in carnatic music since his student days but also excels at jazz improvisation. Where her approach had more a silken legato, Ramamurthy dug in hard with his glissandos and jaunty ornamentation, seated crosslegged, the head of his axe balanced on the stage. Both husband and wife delivered spine-tingling solos.

They opened with the colorful, cinematic pastorale, Tempest. The intensity went through the roof when Charkey joined the tense intertwine between the violins, adding an ominous drone on the G string. From there they negotiated a maze of increasingly agitated echo effects and circular phrases, up to a stormy peak and then an uneasy clearing, coming full circle at the end,

The rest of the set combined edgy jazz flair with Indian majesty and gravitas. Basu introduced the mini-epic Migration as a parable of the increasing terror and obstacles facing refugees and immigrants since the fateful 2016 Presidential election – an insight underscored by her participation in the Borderless Lullabies benefit project for refugee children incarcerated at the US-Mexico border. The interplay was dancingly optimistic to begin with but then climbed to stormy, increasingly syncopated territory.

Nocturne, a dramatic and incisively haunting tableau, had Middle Eastern tinges, ominously shivery chromatic cascades from Basu and slashing microtones from Ramamurthy, in solos that were tantalizingly short. He introduced the night’s one cover, Kalamabike, by 18th century composer Muthuswami Dikshitar, as being very dear to his heart, which was understandable: it’s a gorgeous coda to one of the composer’s many suites, its stark, plaintively unwinding variations anchored by an elegant, broodingly serpentine bassline from Charkey.

You might not expect a drummer to be using a djembe, cajon, daf frame drum and cymbal at a show like this, but this isn’t your typical Indian band, and Kurfirst provided understated color and texture with each of those implements. Charkey also got a couple of moments to pitch in with darkly slithery, microtonally bristling solos. The trio’s closing number echoed the loping, quasi trip-hop groove that many of the other songs followed in their most straightforward moments, in addition to vivid raga riffs from all three of the stringed instruments. Was all this jazz? You could call it that. Indian music? Most definitely. But ultimately, all this defied categorization: it’s unique to the Nakshatra Quartet. You’ll see this concert on the Best Shows of 2019 page here at the end of the year.

This year’s Drive East Festival continues tonight, August 10 at 7:20 PM with a rare US performance by another spectacular, dynamic violinist, Sruti Sarathy at the Mezzanine Theatre, 502 W 53rd St.; cover is $20.

A Harrowing, Mesmerizing Multimedia Meetoo Parable at the Drive East Festival

Sitarist Hidayat Khan‘s haunting raga last night at this year’s New York edition of the annual Drive East Festival could easily have upstaged the rest of the week’s performances. But it didn’t. This past evening, bharatanatyam dancers Rasika Kumar, Sahasra Sambamoorthi and Nadhi Thekkek performed their seethingly relevant yet often sardonically hilarious Metoo parable, Unfiltered, to a series of standing ovations from a sold-out crowd. If this is typical, the rest of the week is going to be pretty amazing – and this blog is giving away tickets.

Singer Roopa Mahadevan‘s live score was every bit as compelling, to the point where it could easily be adapted as a stand-alone concert suite. And the three dancers’ forceful, stunningly imagistic performance works as well as theatre and mime as it does as a choreographed work. Each of the trio has a very distinct character and role. Perhaps ironically, Thekkek portrays the quietest of the three as she encounters a sexual predator. Kumar has to fend off a boss without boundaries; Sambamoorthi battles trouble on the home front.

We never get to see these womens’ male adversaries. There’s very little dialogue, and until the coda, everything spoken is in the form of a question. All the interaction is portrayed by facial expressions and gestures. Kumar’s many faces are absolutely priceless as she tries to maintain a sense of humor and inner calm while her situation deteriorates. Sambamoorthi imbues every aspect of her role – her arm movements, her determined attempts to get her point across, and her thousand-yard stare – with a simmering intensity. Thekkek endows her character with unexpected poise throughout an understatedly harrowing solo.

The narrative is hardly predictable. The grisliest details are only alluded to, and the constant cat-and-mouse game between the three women and their respective predators leaves much to the audience to figure out. Yet there’s also great humor – sometimes vaudevillian, sometimes grim – throughout the piece. The visual jokes, especially early on, are too good to give away – phones and social media are part the picture, at least to the extent that we can imagine it.

And the score is as dynamically rich, and haunting, as the dancing. Mahadevan’s famously powerful mezzo-soprano vocals remained mostly in a moody low register throughout the suite, backed by Arun Ramamurthy on violin – who supplied the biggest crescendos of the night – along with Rohan Prabhudesai on piano, Kavi Srinirasavagavan on mridangam and Malavika Walia on vocals and nattuvangam castanets. They opened with hypnotic, calm variations on a carnatic theme and then drifted toward slowy swaying horror-film tonalities. Constant rhythmic and stylistic shifts matched the dancers’ intricate footwork, whether lithe and slithery or stomping and emphatic. As the drama reached critical mass, Mahadevan and Walia countered the dancers’ defiance and reslience with an all-too familiar spoken-word refrain: “Get over it. This happens to everyone. What will people say? Do you really want the atttention?” Ad nauseum.Without giving away the ending, it’s fair to call this a capsule history of Metoo.

It’s also a good bet that the dancers may reference iconic bharatanatyam dance pieces from over the centuries: those more knowledgeable about classical Indian dance than anyone at this blog may get them. The Drive East Festival continues tomorrow night, August 7 at 6 PM with tabla players Rohan Krishnamurthy and Nitin Mitta’s North and South Indian Percussion Duo with the versatile Prabhudesai on harmonium at the Mezzanine Theatre, 502 W 53rd St; cover is $20.

A Haunting, Riveting Opening Night at This Year’s Drive East Festival of Indian Music

The Drive East Festival has rapidly become the Indian music counterpart to the Charlie Parker Festival: New York’s most highly anticipated concert series in a rapidly growing demimonde. In recent years, opening night has been a feast of thrills and chills. This past evening, sitarist Hidayat Khan may have set the bar impossibly high for the rest of the week with his relentlessly haunting duo performance with tabla player Enayat Hossain. Then again, the rest of the schedule promises similarly transcendent moments.

In about an hour and a half onstage, Khan”s approach to a bracingly chromatic South Indian raga was nothing short of symphonic. What was most striking, intellectually, was how effortlessly and imaginatively he built a series of several thematic variations and then interpolated them into the piece. What was most emotionally riveting was how relentlessly sad the music was: Khan’s brow remained furrowed throughout the entire duration of his opening alap. If there was ever a raga to reflect this grim historical era, this was it.

Khan may have serious chops on the sitar, but he quickly made it clear that this wouldn’t be about searing solos: it was about poignancy, and longing for some kind of closure. He finally delivered that about three-quarters of the way through the concert, but not until then. The alap was spare, somber, bristling with unresolved phrases that tantalized but eluded any decisive landing. Khan’s virtuosity revealed itself the most in a series of wrist-twisting bent notes that he delivered with such force that it seemed he might be using an icy electronic effect like a chorus pedal.

Maybe whoever invented the chorus pedal once saw a sitar virtuoso doing the same thing to build that kind of ambience.

There was plenty of daunting interplay between sitar and tabla throughout the set, Khan challenging Hossain to match his increasingly thorny syncopation note for note: Hossain nailed every phrase. Other sitar virtuosos like to build dynamic contrasts and ride the waves up and down, but Khan was intent on watching the darkness. The central theme was a close approximation of the edgy Arabic hijaz mode, but without the microtones – unless you count the sometimes subtle, occasionally savage bent notes in his matter-of-fact, unrelentingly brooding phrases over Hossain’s sometimes galloping, sometimes stark four-on-the-floor beat

The two alluded to an Afro-Cuban clave for extra slinkiness about three-quarters of the way through, then hit the passing lane, only to detour to the shoulder of this musical road as Khan brought the plaintiveness of the central theme full circle. The Drive East Festival continues tomorrow night, August 6 at 6 PM at the Mezzanine Theatre at 502 W 53rd St with Bharatanatyam dancers Rasika Kumar, Sahasra Sambamoorthi and Nadhi Thekkek performing their new piece Unfiltered, inspired by the Metoo movement. There’s also a live score by spellbinding singer Roopa Mahadevan with violinists Sruti Sarathi and Arun Ramamurthy. Tickets are $30.