Strings Attached

Posted on November 13, 2011


The Hindu Friday Review November Fest got off to a festive start to the sounds of the mandolin and the yanqing.

A few days before Mandolin U. Shrinivas and Prof. Liu Yuening were to perform together at the opening concert of The Hindu Friday Review November Fest, I eavesdropped on a rehearsal. She was seated behind what looked, from a distance, like a table – she resembled a tapestry-maker hunched over a loom, and she was weaving music on the yanqing, which sounds like our santoor. He was on the floor, cradling his mandolin. They were playing together. They also appeared to be playing against each other. She would lob a note at him, and he would come up with a backhanded return. The atmosphere was relaxed, shorn of structural rigidity. After finishing the piece, he laughed and said that it contained almost every one of our pentatonic scales. Cock an ear in this direction and you hear a snatch of Hindolam. Veer a little there and you’re left with the echoes of a Mohanam, a Madhyamavathi.

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That was the general impression at their splendid concert at the Music Academy, before a packed audience. Before Yuening played the piece I heard at the rehearsal, titled Bamboo Flower, she said that Shrinivas was a brilliant artist and picked up the nuances of this typical Chinese folk melody in just a couple of sittings. She was returning a compliment he paid her earlier, when he said she was capable of picking up whatever he played within a couple of minutes. After playing in tandem for a while, Shrinivas graciously exited the stage to allow Yuening her moment in the spotlight. She announced her first solo as being named after a flower that covers the mountains in China at the onset of spring, and this description helped to root the restive music in the audience’s mind. As the notes rose and fell, as they accumulated to crescendos and withered in diminuendos, as they alternated between staccato bursts and gently cascading swirls, Yuening painted a picture of nature in tumult, sloughing off the sluggishness of winter and anticipating the vigour of summer.

Shrinivas then came back with commanding pieces of his own, one of which he had composed specially for the Fest. It was called For Someone. Another especially composed piece bore the name of the concert, Lotus, and it bloomed with notes sustained on a plucked string that he appeared to control with his will, ringing out as long as he needed it to. The percussion artists responded with invention and energy. Vijay Ghate, in the second piece, held sway with a ticking-clock rhythm that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a suspense thriller. His fingers teased every inch of the surface of the tabla. And Selvaganesh, in the latter portions of the concert, was his typically flamboyant self. Not only did he intersperse his ambidextrous playing with konnakkol (the Carnatic stage’s approximation of a jazz vocalist’s scatting), he had the audience pitching in with claps and sounds. The Fest couldn’t have gotten off to a more festive start.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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