No doubt like hundreds of other western listeners, I came to deeply admire the work of Indian singer Asha Bhosle long before I had any idea who she actually was -- or even that the deliciously keening voice I'd so enjoyed in the Bollywood film scores I'd heard was so very often that of just one singer. (Later, I learned that when one of those charming actresses wasn't mouthing the voice of Bhosle, it was usually that of one of her siblings -- most frequently her older sister, Lata Mangeshkar.) In India, Bhosle is royalty, a superstar who has recorded some 12,500 songs, and is not only still going strong at 73 but has moved into writing her own material. For the most part, however, the composer with whose music she is most closely associated is R.D. Burman -- one of Bollywood's most innovative and eclectic composers, and Bhosle's late husband.
Late last year, the ever-adventurous Kronos Quartet collaborated with Bhosle on a CD of Burman's music, You've Stolen My Heart. Truth be told, I wasn't as fond of the Nonesuch disc as I'd expected to be; many of its tracks struck me at first as so overly laden with synthesizers, special effects and guest musicians that the Kronos players were effectively reduced to sideman status. Despite several such previous crossover efforts, such as the delightful Latin-pop collection, Nuevo, I still prefer to think of the Kronos as a string quartet that bends disparate musics to its format, rather than bending itself to play a role in larger productions. Still, the attraction of actually hearing Bhosle perform live drew me to Carnegie Hall tonight, where the Kronos Quartet ended its current "Live Mix" residency with an evening mostly devoted to the music from their album with the singer.
That tonight's event was not the typical Carnegie Hall offering was heralded by more than just the abundance of gorgeous saris sported by seemingly half the audience. The lights were already dimmed somewhat prior to the performance, which got off to a leisurely start well after 8pm. The first half of the concert featured cultural appropriations of various sorts, few of which added up to very much. An arrangement of "Flugufrelsarinn," a song by Icelandic postrock group Sigur Rós, opened the bill with a pleasant enough puddle of euphonious sound, like a narcotized take on Neil Young's "Mr. Soul," but utterly lacked the peculiarity on which much of the band's renown seems to rest. A version of the stirring Ethiopian saxophonist-composer Gétatchèw Mèkurya's Aha gedawo unfortunately amounted to still less -- little more than a dry, repetitive riff. Canadian composer Derek Charke's Cercle du Nord III was a pleasantly evocative soundscape that combined hocketing string parts, imitating Inuit vocal games, with prerecorded sounds of wind, barking dogs and the humming and growling of electric machinery.
Violinists David Harrington and John Sherba took up harmonium and tambura, respectively, for Indian sarangi master Ram Narayan's Raga Mishra Bhairavi -- or more specifically, a meditative gloss transcribed from a 1989 recording by Narayan. Hank Dutt's keening viola lines often captured the songful spontaneity of its source. The quartet was augmented by guests for the three R.D. Burman selections that closed the first half. Tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain, greeted by a thunderous ovation, joined the group in Osvaldo Golijov's arrangement of Burman's "Aaj Ki Raat," originally featured on the 2000 Nonesuch release, Caravan. The remarkable Chinese-American pipa player Wu Man was added for newer takes on "Nodir Pare Utthchhe Dhnoa" and the crowd-pleasing "Mehbooba Mehbooba."
If the first half of the concert, at least early on, still bore some resemblance to a formal recital, the second half was entirely given over to a loosely paced celebration of the quartet's collaboration with Bhosle, liberally punctuated with long asides and jokes from the singer, who spoke in an admittedly broken English. (She took special delight in compelling Harrington to announce most of her numbers in their original tongue.) Set against the syrupy strings and twanging pipa of "Chura Liya Hai Tum Ne" -- a.k.a. the CD's titular "You've Stolen My Heart" -- the 73-year-old singer's voice still sounded preternaturally youthful; moreover, this diminutive woman, clad in a shimmering sari, easily filled the auditorium with the power of her presence. The sinuous "Ekta Deshlai Kathi Jalao" ("Light a Match") followed, after which Bhosle laughingly complained that Harrington had selected her late husband's most difficult songs for the program.
The quietly seductive "Rishne Bante Hain" ("Relationships Grow Slowly") offered violist Dutt an opportunity to demonstrate his considerable keyboard skills, and it wouldn't be the last; he abandoned his primary instrument several times during the set to play involved organ and piano parts. (Seeing the Kronos musicians actually taking on this ornate pop onstage gave me a new respect for their flexibility, suggesting that I might also have sold the CD short.) Bhosle shimmied like a rock star to Hussain's propulsive beat during "Dum Maro Dum" ("Take Another Toke"), after which she took a brief break -- though not before compelling Harrington to live up to a promise that he would dance with her onstage; this he did, endearingly if awkwardly.
After two instrumental selections -- "Saajan Kahan Jaoongi Main" ("Beloved, Where Would I Go?") and "Dhanno Ki Aankhon" ("In Dhanno's Eyes"), the latter a winning evocation of train-track rhythms and hissing steam -- Bhosle rejoined the group for "Koi Aaya Aane Bhi De" ("If People Come"), which might have been a Chinese disco hit punctuated by Wu's gong smacks and vocal shouts delivered by Harrington and Sherba into their instruments' amplifying pick-ups. Harrington's violin sounded like a veritable orchestra unto itself during a moving performance of "Mera Kuch Saaman" ("Some of My Things"), a melancholy song to which Bhosle confessed a deep, personal connection. The singer shimmied sexily during the closing number, the propulsive "Saiyan Re Saiyan" ("My Lover Came Silently"). Confronted with massive bouquets borne by ushers onstage and audience members alike -- some of which, she playfully seemed to suggest, might be donated to Kronos cellist Jeffrey Ziegler's impending wedding -- Bhosle and the musicians closed the concert with an encore performance of the sole remaining track from the CD, the seductive, tangolike "Piya Tu Ab To Aaja" ("Lover, Come to Me Now").
On balance, this was a greatly entertaining evening -- which is perhaps not something I would have predicted given my sagging spirits prior to intermission, brought on by my longing for the Kronos Quartet's exploits of 20 years ago, a time in which I hung on the group's every move. Back then, the quartet's dedication to new pieces by the likes of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Zorn and István Márta made every single concert a must-see event. This time around, I'd allowed my perception of diminishing returns from recent Terry Riley pieces -- as well as low expectations of new works from Glenn Branca (whose best music comes in other settings) and JG Thirlwell (err, umm... ditto) -- to preclude my hearing what might have been, and reportedly were, outstanding new pieces by Michael Gordon and Alexandra du Bois, among others.
In rendering the estimable output of R.D. Burman on a more-or-less even playing field with that of Schubert, Stravinsky and Gershwin (not to mention Ellington and Lennon & McCartney), Harrington proves himself a greater musical universalist than I can claim to be. Perhaps where we differ is simply a matter of presentation: Burman's music, as well as that of Sigur Rós and Gétatchèw Mèkurya, is to my thinking best delivered via the instrumental format for which it was conceived, and by musicians whose milieu the composers share, or so it seems to me. This collaboration with Asha Bhosle was undeniably a thrill, but that was mostly due to the singer's participation. Otherwise, I find that I'm most moved by the Kronos Quartet when it offers new music actually intended for two violins, viola and cello, performed by one of the most broadminded ensembles in the business.
Sigur Rós - Áegætis Byrjun (Bad Taste)
Adrian Belew - Side Three (Sanctuary)
Mono - You Are There (Temporary Residence)