When I walked into Howard Assembly Room on Sunday afternoon I thought that I had accidentally stumbled into a yoga class, with mats laid on the floor. It then dawned on me that this concert was part of their Wellbeing Weekend, so any thoughts of being made to squeeze this rather ample body into lycra were soon dispelled. I must say that the concert proved to be a much needed boost to my wellbeing as my spirits were lifted sky high by the end.

The relaxed atmosphere of Howard Assembly Room

The reason I was there was to hear a recital given by Roopa Panesar, the sitar virtuoso, with her collaborators Al MacSween on piano, Camilo Tirado (sound design and electronics) and Gurdain Rayatt on tabla. The Crossing is this year’s Opera North commission for the PRSF New Music Biennial. It is a piece ‘woven from improvised exchanges between the four artists and is described by Ms Panesar as “a movement from loss to renewal”.’

The first part of the presentation was a piece for sitar and piano, with Camilo Tirado working his magic on the electronic gizmos at the back of the hall. It was very emotional and more than succeeded in hitting home.

I need to refer to the online notes on Howard Assembly Room’s website, as the mechanics and minutiae are well beyond me. It says that traditional Hindustani baithak concerts, in which the audience and performers are in close proximity, influence the direction of each performance. Once joined on stage by Gurdain Rayatt the three conventional musicians weave together within a framework of traditional Indian raags, with Camilo Tirado’s electronics multiplying and knitting the sounds together.

Left to right: Al MacSween, Gurdain Rayatt and Roopa Panesar.

Now that I have got that out of the way I can let you have my impressions of the concert.

The first thing which struck me was the incredible range of the instruments which, in the hands of these amazing players, seemed to be able to produce whatever sound they wanted. Not only were the strings on the sitar bent to within an inch of their lives, but the heel of the hands of the tabla player elicited notes with such depth and variety it was a feast for the ears. The way in which he produced such strong rapid-fire percussion using his fingertips was also mesmerising. I am sure that the electronic wizardry had a part to play but you can only work with the sound created.

I felt a bit sorry for Mr MacSween – I don’t know why as he is a superb pianist – who, despite reaching into the piano to manipulate the strings, didn’t have anything like the potential to do this as the other two. He did manage to produce a few notes which I doubt the instrument was intended to play, but insofar as this form of improvisation was concerned he was on a bit of a loser. What he did do however, and brilliantly too, was to echo the phrases of the sitar, and at break-neck speed, in a few extended passages. The dialogue between the two was complex and intricate but still easy to follow even for a novice listener such as myself. His dexterity and skill were seemingly pushed to the limit and not found wanting. It can’t be easy playing a conventional western instrument whilst using the scales and chords of South Asian music.

At the end of the programme, the room erupted into applause, and quite rightly so. We had just witnessed a masterclass in the melding of styles and instruments which took us from emotional lows to the highest of highs. I could not help but think that I was in the presence of some exceptional musicians.

Gurdain Rayatt, Al MacSween and Roopa Panesar. Camilo Tirado remains a man of mystery.

The Crossing was presented by the aforementioned organisations in partnership with Coventry UK City of Culture, BBC Radio 3 and NMC Recordings with support from Arts Council of England, Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

Sadly there does not appear to be any other concerts listed on Ms Panesar’s website but for other Howard Assembly Room events please go to https://www.operanorth.co.uk/event-tag/har/

Feature image provided by Howard Assembly Room, other photographs by Stan Graham

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