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Sunday, October 5, 2008


Distinctly unusual but highly successful concert featuring the acclaimed Dr L. Subramaniam. (Review by Michael Green)

This was a distinctly unusual concert by the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra: a programme consisting mainly of Indian music, authentic Indian music by that country’s most prominent composer, with the man himself appearing as a solo violinist.

There was a gratifying result at the box office. Bongani Tembe, the orchestra’s chief executive, said from the stage that the concert was a sell-out, with 1,500 tickets sold. There were quite a few unoccupied seats in my neck of the woods, the lower gallery of the City Hall, but the attendance in general was certainly much larger than usual.

Durban’s Indian community turned out in force on this occasion, though there have been few such patrons at past concerts and I doubt whether there will be any permanent increase in support. Perhaps the orchestra should give more concerts of Indian music, but I have the feeling that the novelty might wear off.

Be that as it may, this concert was a great success and an interesting demonstration of how east can indeed meet west, culturally and artistically. The composer/performer was L. Subramaniam, a 60-year-old musician who has built a big international reputation and has recorded about 200 of his own works. I have heard, on CDs, some examples, written and played by him on the violin, of the raga, the basic musical form of South India. These sound rather strange to western ears but, like many pieces of music, they grow on one with repeated listening.

However, the two works played by the KZNPO are in a different category. The Fantasy on Vedic Chants, written in 1985 for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and played in Durban about 15 years ago at the then Durban-Westville university, is a vivid and attractive three-movement work. It has a big part for the solo violin, played by L. Subramaniam himself, with support from drummers and tampura, a stringed drone instrument, all the players sitting on the floor of a low platform on stage. Exotic yes, but accessible too, and it was much to the liking of the City Hall audience.

The conductor was the visiting American Leslie Dunner, and he had obviously put great care and attention to detail in his preparation of himself and the orchestra for this work and the other Subramaniam composition, the Freedom Symphony. This was written last year for an American orchestra and this Durban performance was only the second in the world. The symphony was written to mark India’s 60 years of independence, hence the title.

Again, this was a skilful fusion of indigenous Indian music with western instruments and musical forms, with a big solo soprano role, sung by Kavita Krishnamurti, who is Dr Subramaniam’s wife (he is a medical doctor as well as a composer and violinist). The singing was clearly of high quality and I found it very appealing, the only difficult area being a lengthy unaccompanied passage that seemed to be some kind of incantation.

Incidentally, singer and solo instrumentalists all used microphones, with amplifying equipment on stage. Unusual in performances of western music but necessary here, I think. Without the amplification their sounds might well have been drowned by the orchestra.

The concert was completed on much more familiar ground, with visits to sunny Italy by a French composer and a Russian composer: Berlioz’s Carnaval Romain and Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien. Leslie Dunner is a vigorous and a meticulous conductor, and the orchestra was in splendid form. - Michael Green