It is not every day that I get to go to the world premier of a classical music piece but on Sunday, 23rd February I had just that privilege. The setting was Huddersfield Town Hall and the piece in question was Arya by Jasdeep Singh Degun. It is described as A Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra and was commissioned by Opera North.
Before I get to Arya I will cover the other pieces on the programme; Köçekçe by Ulvi Cemal Erkin and Karelia Suit, Op.11, The Swan of Tuonela, Op.22 No.3 and Symphony No.7 in C major Op.105 by Jean Sibelius. All of these works were performed by the Orchestra of Opera North conducted by Malaysian-born Harish Shankar.
The first piece was one with which I am not familiar but the Turkish origins of the composer were soon coming to the fore. The bustling feeling of the markets of Istanbul were vividly recalled with the use of bongo drums, being of Cuban origin they are something I would not associate with Turkish music, but worked perfectly, as did the finger cymbals. Seeing a male musician in black dinner jacket and bow tie playing finger cymbals is a sight to behold but it is the sound that counts.
Köçekçe was a wonderful way to start the concert and left me thinking that I should have a search to see if I can sample any more of Erkin’s music on-line. I love it when I discover something new which hits the spot, especially unexpectedly.
Having started with something totally unfamiliar the concert ended with a piece that we all know from tv theme tunes, adverts, pop music samples and its inclusion on myriad ‘Best of’ albums; the Karalia Suite. Not surprising really as the piece began life in 1900 as incidental music comprising an overture and six vignettes to be played accompanying a series of Tableaux depicting scenes of the history of Karelia, a republic which has been the subject of disputes between the Finns and Russians for many years and is now divided between the two countries.
The Swan of Tuonela is based on Finnish mythology with the name being that of an island in a river with black water and a rapid current, on which the swan serenely floats. Like most myths it deals with love, and the fight between forces of light and dark. The music is as deep as the river.
Symphony No.7 was the last of Sibelius’ symphonies and consists of a single movement although the conventional changes of tempo are still incorporated. Another piece which I must listen to again.
In between the pieces from the very south and north of Europe we have the main event, Arya, the Sitar Concerto by Jasdeep Singh Degun who I am proud to say is a Leeds lad. Although he is not from a musical family he showed great promise in primary school and has gone on to study in both the UK and India. He has won several awards including Musician of the Year at the National Indian Arts Awards in 2016.
Arya, commissioned by Opera North and was a challenge for the writer as most Indian music is improvised and comes from an oral perspective so nothing is written down. The use of a huge orchestra is not in the genesis of the music either! I must say that I didn’t know what to expect from the work as I have only ever seen the odd tv concert by Ravi Shankar or a solo in a pop music song, so my visions have always been of a group of performers on Indian instruments using the chord structure and indigenous drone and tones. Here we had the sitar player sitting cross-legged on the stage surrounded by the conventional orchestra.
The way in which the piece has been composed has been to ditch any attempt at the traditional Indian or Western concepts and start from scratch. The orchestra opened the piece with strings, a gong, and what seemed to be a musical saw, but probably wasn’t although I couldn’t get a proper view of what it really was. Whatever, there was a passage of sitar and oboe which worked beautifully well and then the whole orchestra joined in, complete with tubular bells.
The first movement was more of a Western influenced passage but when the second movement opened, the strings adopted an Indian style which was superb. We then got to the pinnacle of the piece, a sitar solo which was utterly sublime. Again it wasn’t hard core Indian but a flight through all styles. I heard small snatches of Within You, Without You but then it veered off at a tangent taking me to a higher plane.
This concerto was an absolute delight, it wasn’t a case of dumbing down Indian music for Western ears, more raising the level of what we are used to and introducing us to the joys of the instrument and the ways in which it can be used. I can’t praise this work, and its composer, highly enough.
I must also give praise to the conductor who added to the proceedings by becoming very animated and, at one point during a particularly upbeat passage I thought that he was going to throw some shapes on the podium. He was also immaculately turned out in a long Nehru-style jacket which was beautifully tailored, it is good to see a conductor who doesn’t get dressed in the dark.
If at all possible I would urge you to try to visit one of the further performances yet to take place. They are at Durham Catherdral on Thursday 5th March, The Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester on Wednesday, 11th March and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Centre on Thursday, 19th May all begin at 7.30pm.
Please go to https://www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on/arya-concert/ for details and booking. Be aware, however, that the other works are not the same as those performed above.
Feature photo by Justin Slee