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Sunday, October 4, 2009


Celebrated Indian flautist/composer and youthful pianist impress audiences. (Review by Michael Green)

A gratifyingly large audience, much bigger than usual, attended this Durban City hall concert of the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra, the attraction being the celebrated Indian flautist and composer Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia. He is widely known, not only in India but also in Europe and North America, and Durban’s Indian community turned out in impressive numbers to hear this master of music.

Pandit Chaurasia is 71 years old, a calm and dignified figure in his oriental robe, and he was supported on stage by a team of four other performers from India: a second flute player (Sunil Avachat), two vigorous and cheerful hand-drummers (Vijay Ghate and Bhavani Prasad Kathak) and the only woman, the beautiful and grave Nayanashree P. Chaurasia playing the long-necked stringed drone instrument, the tanpura.

The first half of the evening’s programme was occupied entirely by these players, who gave us some examples of the raga, the traditional Indian musical form consisting of five or more notes from which a melody is fashioned and which is rather like an improvisation in western music.

Pandit Chaurasia plays a long bamboo flute with finger holes, quite unlike the metal keys of the modern western flute. From this instrument he extracts a surprisingly big tone (admittedly he was playing before a microphone to amplify the sound), and he contrasts long meditative passages with lively phrases requiring some very deft fingerwork.

As a non-expert on Indian music I greatly enjoyed the performance of these dedicated musicians. Vijay Ghate’s playing of the tabla, a pair of hand drums, was of particular note, especially a delightful duologue in which the tabla imitated phrases played by the flute. You wouldn’t have thought that a drum could imitate a flute, but it was done here, to great effect. The players were given a well-deserved ovation by a highly enthusiastic audience.

The western music of the evening was supplied by Franz Liszt, his Piano Concerto No. 2 in E flat major and his symphonic poem Les Preludes. The soloist in the concerto was Jan Hugo, the brilliant 18-year-old South African pianist who is now studying in Italy and who had created something of a sensation when playing for the Friends of Music nine days earlier.

This concerto is a massive and difficult work, full of thundering octaves and rapid figuration. Jan Hugo is a slight and youthful figure at the keyboard, but he showed plenty of power in the fortissimo passages and, in contrast, produced some really beautiful cantabile playing in the lyrical interludes, with a clear, unforced tone carrying to the far reaches of the City Hall. He is so mature a player that it is hard to believe that he is only 18. The audience listened with rapt attention and he, too, was given prolonged applause at the end.

The American conductor Leslie B. Dunner is an old favourite in Durban, and he contributed greatly to the success of this concert, eliciting consistently good playing from the orchestra.

The final item was Liszt’s well-known Les Preludes, a performance made remarkable by the inclusion of Pandit Chaurasia in a lengthy flute solo and of the two Indian drummers to give further emphasis to Liszt’s already emphatic music. I suppose opinions will vary about this. To me it was contrived. I don’t think Liszt’s highly organised composition needs improvement, and the interposed flute solo, eloquent and well played though it was, seemed to me to have little or no relevance to the music that went before and after it. - Michael Green