REVIEW: Shubhendra Rao & Saskia Rao-de Haas, Mystic Voices Festival at the Bhavan Centre W14

(L-R) Shahbaz Hussain, Shubhendra Rao, Saskia Rao-de Haas

Shubhendra Rao & Saskia Rao-de Haas: Sitar & Cello Concert 
(Bhavan Centre, 17th June 2016. Review by Naoise Murphy.)

Shubhendra Rao and Saskia Rao-de Haas’s sitar and cello concert was part of the Mystic Voices Festival, which aims to explore ‘the connections between spirituality, poetry and music.’ And there was indeed something deeply spiritual, even transcendent, in the air at the Bhavan Centre. These highly accomplished musicians created an atmosphere of peace and serenity, sitting cross-legged on a raised, carpeted platform on the stage.

The concert was made up of long pieces (of up to thirty minutes) that tended to begin slowly and quietly, building to greater and greater intensity. The players easily kept the audience absorbed in their performance - their stunning compositions had plenty of light and shade.

Dutch-born Rao-de Haas brought a passionate playing style to her unique instrument, the Indian cello (which is smaller than a Western cello- more detail HERE). An engaging performer, she was equally capable of producing deep, gravelly sounds and lighter, more lyrical sounds, mixing Western and Indian influences beautifully.

Rao learnt his craft with the best. He was pupil of Ravi Shankar and performed with him. Their association, in the guru-shishya tradition, lasted for most of two decades. The harmonic complexity of Rao's sitar playing was compelling, and his technical mastery of the instrument was stunning, his fingers racing up and down the instrument at lightning speed.

Each instrument was given equal time centre-stage, with the pieces mostly alternating between the two. The performance reached new heights when they played together, achieving a frantic energy that was later aided even more by the addition of the tabla.

Shahbaz Hussain on tabla brought depth and character to the performance when he joined in from the second piece. A pulsating beat and jaunty syncopated rhythms helped to create even further musical complexity. The diversity of sounds Hussain was able to produce from the tabla with his hands and the skill with which he interacted with the sitar and cello were spellbinding.

The final piece of the evening – a response to 9/11 - was a highlight. Rao described it in his introduction as ‘a cry of anguish.’ It told the story of two children who lose their parents in the tragedy, encapsulating the pain, despair and confusion of the event with a soaring cello melody and the lyrical sounds of the sitar, and the two were eventually joined by the tabla. The message of the piece was that life can never be completely hopeless. These musicians succeeded in transcending anguish, in finding hope for a better world.

The Mystic Voices Festival continues until late July. 

LINK: The SAMA Arts Network website has full festival listings

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