50th Spirit of India

York Theatre, November 28

Subra res
Ambi and Dr L Subramaniam.

Lakshminarayan Subramaniam is among the great musicians currently walking this earth and only an occasional visitor to these shores (always thanks to the Spirit of India program). So imagine the collective frustration when the first hour of the violinist’s performance was marred by sound problems. The fold-back was not to his satisfaction and the front-of-house mix was most certainly not to the audience’s, with his violin submerged beneath the other instruments. The degree to which this was a technical calamity and the degree to which it was ineptitude was hard to gauge, but after fully an hour of false starts both the players and the audience could be forgiven for losing patience.

Somehow Subramaniam maintained his equilibrium and we finally witnessed a performance that was a worthy celebration of 50 Spirit of India tours across 34 years. Subramaniam’s violin sound was so ethereal as to seem disembodied from the instrument; his bowing technique so sublime that the microtonal notes could be prefaced with no attack as they flowed with all the inevitability of water. Yet this sonic and melodic ethereality could dovetail with a level of rhythmic energy to put him in rare company, regardless of idiom.

The idiom here was the Carnatic music of South India, with Subramaniam joined by his son Ambi, another exceptional violinist, whose darker, earthier timbre provided a pleasing contrast with his father’s. They were ably accompanied by Dhulipala Murthy on the double-headed mridangam drum and Satya Sai on morsing (jaw harp).

Curiously the sound was close to perfect for the opening set by the gifted North Indian singer Ashwini Bhide Deshpande, accompanied by Seema Shirodkar (harmonium) and Vishwanath Shirodkar (tabla). Deshpande does not have a big voice, but it is extraordinarily even in tonal quality across an impressive range, and her filigree melodic ornamentation was bewitching.

The problems that beset Subramaniam’s performance aside, this was a brilliant double bill and a rare convergence of the North and South Indian classical traditions.