West Meets East, Abroad and in Columbus

May 12, 2017

Last September, I wrote about the opera by Indian musician Ravi Shankar that was left unfinished when he died at the age of 92 in 2012 and about its recent completion. Sukanya premieres in England in a series of performances beginning tonight and leading up to a London performance at the Southbank Centre on May 19.

Shankar is, of course, the famous Indian sitar virtuoso and composer who introduced many westerners to Indian classical music (yours truly included) via his many recordings and international touring, beginning in the 1950s. It was in the late' 60s, however, that Shankar became a kind of pop icon after his association and friendship with the Beatles' George Harrison.

He was called the "father of world music" for his collaborations with musicians from the West, including Yehudi Menuhin, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Zubin Mehta, Philip Glass and others. But that should not undercut or diminish the seriousness with which Shankar presented Indian classical music to Western audiences, or the appreciation of his great skill as a sitar musician. I was dazzled when I saw him perform at Mershon Auditorium here in town many years ago.

The story of the opera Sukanya is based on an episode from the Mahabharata, the Indian national epic that is 10 times as long as the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. It tells the tale of a dutiful young daughter who has to marry an old sage in the forest because of an unfortunate incident. But magical things transpire, and it turns out things are not as they seem.

Sukanya was completed by longtime collaborator David Murphy, with the help of Shankar's daughter, Anoushka, and writer Amit Chauduri. The presentation is by the Royal Opera and the London Philharmonic Orchestra in this production blending song and dance, East and West.

The Columbus Symphony is also combining sounds from the East and West with its program this weekend featuring The Miraculous Mandarin by Bela Bartok, Sheherazade by Niclolai Rimsky-Korsakov and The Grand Canal by Tian Zhou, in music that pairs a symphony orchestra with traditional Chinese instruments and an opera singer.