Music director Richard Pittman called Boston Musica Viva’s Saturday season finale “BMV World Tour 2015,” but its centerpiece made a case for not knowing whether one is coming or going. The essential inspiration behind Shirish Korde’s “Kala Chakra” — a nine-movement song cycle-cum-spiritual jam session, given its premiere — was samsara, the birth-and-death cycle that, in many eastern religions, emphasizes life’s fleeting impermanence. Enlightenment turned out to have a wide-ranging itinerary.
Korde, a Holy Cross professor with an omnivorous streak, oriented (and continually reoriented) the piece around three soloists: soprano Gitanjali Mathur, trained in Indian and Western traditions; Wu Tong, a virtuoso on the sheng, the Chinese mouth organ — and a rock singer; and tabla master Sandeep Das, a veteran of cross-genre explorations. An opening, rhythmically chattering volley — based on bols, mnemonic syllables used to communicate tabla patterns — led to a mournful, wintry Czech folksong, violinist Gabriela Diaz and cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws interjecting pizzicato shivers, percussionist Robert Schulz’s marimba introducing limpid disturbance. An improvisation between Wu and Das was followed by another bol burst. A setting of Chinese poetry had Mathur negotiating wide leaps of straight-tone melody over a chorus of bells (flutist Ann Bobo and clarinetist William Kirkley doubling on crotales); a Chinese folksong, a vocal duet, ingeniously intertwined Mathur’s full, silvery operatic voice with Wu’s throaty expressivity.
Another Czech folksong, this one heralding spring, spilled splashes of jazzy harmonies — pianist Aaron Likness comping in appropriately modal style — while Mathur dropped down to a sultry, scat-singing chest voice; another improvisation, structured around riffs culled from classic jazz, eventually roped in the entire ensemble. A drumming-and-chanting cadenza from Das rounded off a reprise of the opening. Even with its web of thematic echoes — seasonal and rhythmic cycles; the in-the-moment of both jazz and eastern philosophy — the experience of “Kala Chakra” remained decidedly and (one suspects) deliberately heterogeneous: a reservoir of opportunities to regard change and surprise with equanimity.
The concert opened with music sounding varieties of translation. Sebastian Currier’s “Whispers” orchestrated such quietly projected intensities, Bobo, Müller-Szeraws, Likness, and Schulz exerting soft-spoken control, musical chase scenes dynamically dialed back into impressionistic patterns. Chou Wen-chung’s “Ode to Eternal Pine” originated as a piece for Korean traditional instruments; the transfer to a western ensemble (filled out by Diaz and Kirkley) prompted a string of resourceful atmospheres, entire worlds condensed into precise moments. Franco Donatoni’s “Arpège” (another sextet), in turn, magnified short motives into bright, kaleidoscopic obsessiveness; its steady accretion of small variations evoked the dizzying litanies of a foreign phrasebook. Travel gets more interesting once you begin to pick up the language.
Matthew Guerrieri, The Boston Globe, April 14, 2015
Under the leadership of Richard Pittman, Boston Musica Viva closed its 46th season in Longy School of Music’s Pickman Hall on Saturday evening with four contemporary works. Sebastian Currier’s Whispers (1996), Chou Wen-chung’s Ode to Eternal Pine (2009) and Franco Donatoni’s Arpège (1986) served as preface to the premiere of Shirish Korde’s 2015 Kala Chakra. The thoughtful setup challenged the ensemble to perform with clarity and precision, garnering standing ovations from a packed auditorium.
In opening remarks, Pittman explained how Saturday’s concert served as vehicle to Korde’s premiere. The pieces were selected to draw from a multitude of musical traditions, the American and Italian heritages of Currier and Donatoni perhaps being the most familiar. Currier’s Whispers is a single-movement high-powered romp that at times borders on the frenetic; scored for piano (Aaron Likness), flute (Ann Bobo), cello (Jan Mϋller-Szeraws), and percussion (Robert Schulz), it sharply delineates each of the voices in a cohesive, subtly nuanced counterpoint. Although I found it sometimes manic, there is also something deeply meditative in Whispers as a whole when broken down to its individual voices. BMV shone, particularly cellist Jan Mϋller-Szeraws, who played with vigor and sensitivity, maintaining a rich line. Whispers stood in sharp contrast to Arpège, which—similar to Currier—revels in the individuality of the instrumental line. But the approach in Donatoni’s late work is somehow more intricate, reveling in a stark pointillism that ultimately serves to unite the piece as a whole. Gabriela Diaz (violin) joined the ensemble.
Ninety-one-year-old Chou Wen-chung’s Ode to Eternal Pine is certainly less familiar ground compared with these pieces. His oeuvre shows off its non-Western sonorities and instrumentation (the composition was scored originally for a Korean instrument ensemble, subsequently rewritten for traditional Chinese instruments, on Saturday taking the form scored for piano, violin, cello, flute, clarinet and percussion). Even in conception, Ode to Eternal Pine proved unfamiliar: in his comments on it, Pittman noted that Wen-chung views the relationships among its five movements nonlinearly. In that respect Ode to Eternal Pine was the most difficult to understand: episodes in the piece aren’t marked by individual characters necessarily, but build monumental grandeur that meditates on chong ak, the expression of human emotion as inspired by nature. The grandeur is impressive to experience, although I should admit that I found the relationship of the music to the purported structure tenuous.
These pieces set the stage well, then, for Korde’s Kala Chakra, which fluidly moves among multiple traditions. Its Sanskrit title translating as “time cycles,” the nine-movement set for tenor, soprano and small orchestra plays with rhythmic motifs in the Indian tāla system at its core: cycles of rhythms based on two and three beats are augmented and diminished in intricate games throughout the work. More expansively, the song cycle takes the ever-changing (yet cyclical) nature of time as its subject. Music from China, India, jazz, and folksongs from Eastern Europe all wend their way together in the nine separate movements that vary in texture and form, presenting meditations on the seasons, the passing day, or the systematic returns of improvisation, in both jazz and Indian classical music, each of these being cyclic repetitions that highlight underlying change. Perhaps the only constant is three repeated movements at the beginning, middle, and end, stark exceptions to the song cycle’s stark thesis. That change is the only constant. But the stasis of these passages is shattered by a revelatory tabla cadenza in the final return of the refrain. The cycle is remarkably authentic and effortless, transitioning among different genres and cultures, and serving as a convincing meditation on the universality of sameness and change.
Kala Chakra took full advantage of all of BMV’s forces, supplemented with tabla, sheng (a traditional Chinese woodwind, cousin of the Japanese shō), and tenor and soprano. Significant vocal work was done by soprano Gitangali Mathur, who, although at times sounding thin and undersupported, should be commended nonetheless on the the span of her training, easily transitioning from Carnatic recitation to Western song. Tenor Wu Tong, performing Po Chu Yi’s Single Light in the fifth movement, pours forth a supple, plaintive sound that melded beautifully with the subdued sonorities of the setting. Tong was also featured prominently on the sheng, particularly in almost polyphonic improvisatory passages of the third movement. Sandeep Das was also a feature of the evening, not only in the significant tabla writing throughout, but also in a stellar concluding cadenza in which he duels on tabla against spoken Carnatic rhythmic challenges that he poses to himself. The resultant thrilling battle brought the song cycle to a most satisfying close.
Sudeep Agarwala, The Boston Musical Intelligencer, April 15, 2015
Let’s face it, “It’s got a great beat and you can dance to it” is not a line you commonly see in reviews of contemporary chamber music.
But at Saturday night’s concert by Boston Musica Viva in the Longy School of Music’s Pickman Hall, there it was: the world premiere of a piece so rhythmically infectious that, if the tiny hall had any aisles to speak of, one could imagine the patrons dancing in them.
As it was, they had to content themselves with applauding vigorously and bounding to their feet at the close of Kala Chakra, Shirish Korde’s new nine-movement work for three soloists and chamber ensemble.
As the composer explained in comments from the stage, his piece was in fact a celebration of rhythm, not just in music but in life’s cycles of birth and death, gain and loss, winter and spring (a point not lost on blizzard-weary Boston listeners enjoying their first mild evening in months).
The able ensemble for this piece, and for most of the evening, consisted of Ann Bobo, flute, piccolo and alto flute; William Kirkley, clarinet and bass clarinet; Robert Schulz, percussion; Aaron Likness, piano; Gabriela Diaz, violin; and Jan Müller-Szeraws, cello.
The international cast of soloists included the Indian soprano Gitanjali Mathur; Wu Tong, who sang and played the sheng, a Chinese reed organ; and tabla player Sandeep Das, who contributed some remarkable vocals of his own. All three had their voices amplified, which seemed unnecessary and a little intrusive in this intimate setting.
The piece’s title, the composer said, means Cycles of Time, but refers also to the Indian musical game of expanding a rhythmic unit by adding more and more beats to it until the players have to remember mind-bogglingly long sequences of beats. Three movements also titled Kala Chakra brilliantly played that game at the beginning, middle, and end of the piece.
Four songs and two improvisatory interludes filled out the list of nine brief movements. The songs were mostly of Czech or Kazakh origin, and the improvisations quoted riffs from jazz greats such as Miles Davis and Bill Evans, so this piece all by itself amply justified the concert’s overall title, “BMV World Tour 2015.”
Singer Mathur—“soprano” seems too grand a word for the mezzo-voce way she used her microphone—sensitively intoned the songs, mostly in long notes without vibrato, and seemed equally at home in the smooth Czech folk songs about the seasons and the more disjunct lines of “Single Light,” Korde’s setting of an ancient Zen poem about impermanence. She also proved adept at bols, the fast, rhythmic spoken syllables that imitate drums.
Sheng master Wu, whose instrument looks like a small bundle of sticks, produced from it music ranging from wistful asides to vibrant chords—and, in the jazz-colored improvisations, blazing runs worthy of Coltrane. The surprise was his singing, expressive and a little breathy, rising (in a Kazakh song of lost love) to a hoarse wail that made the hair on the back of one’s neck stand up.
Tabla player Das had only two drums to play—not much of a night’s work, one might think, but his subtle and dextrous contributions gave the piece a lift whenever he was spotlighted. The closing movement turned him loose in a long solo, a jaw-dropping, show-stealing display of ultra-fast bols and drumming.
And Kala Chakra was just the climax of a program full of propulsive music. The concert’s “World Tour” title referred to the origins of the four composers in the United States, China, Italy and India. But “The Beat Goes On” would have served as well for a title.
One might imagine that percussionist Schulz, who was onstage the whole evening, was in charge of laying down that beat, but no drum kit was in evidence Saturday night. Instead, Schulz’s artful handling of a large array ranging from bass drum to high treble temple bells made him the color commentator of the night, weaving moods from mystical to militant, adding a pithy remark from time to time. (Mention must be made of his show-off mallet twirl to make a temple-bell “ting” in the middle of a rapid wood-block passage in Franco Donatoni’s Arpège.)
The job of projecting the dancing rhythms fell mostly to the other members of the ensemble. Pianist Likness of course, but also cellist Müller-Szeraws and flutist Bobo stood out for telling listeners exactly where to put their little foot.
Those three players and Schulz opened the concert with Sebastian Currier’s 1996 piece Whispers, which did indeed work in a soft dynamic most of the time, though with motoric energy to spare. Currier’s idiomatic writing for each instrument while coming up with fruitful ways for them to interact showed the hand of a chamber-music master at work.
Violinist Diaz and clarinetist Kirkley filled out the ensemble for the rest of the program, beginning with Chou Wen-chung’s Ode to Eternal Pine, a 2009 piece in its third iteration following versions for Korean and Chinese orchestras. Dance rhythms were largely absent here, as the piece’s mostly spare textures and leisurely tempos meditated on nature and human existence, while not ruling out moments of stark, kabuki-like drama.
Donatoni’s 1986 piece Arpège did indeed deal in arpeggios, though not in a blatant, Philip Glass kind of way. Fleet-footed and staccato, the piece proved rich in Italian wit and volatility (think Vivaldi) and the six players were alert to its every mood and texture, so that it took on the episodic character of a theme and variations. At several points, the play of accents in fast canons made the music dance even more.
With these three lively pieces for a prelude, the prospect after intermission of a nine-movement work for unfamiliar instruments on the subject of impermanence seemed daunting, kind of like that Mahler symphony you know is waiting for you at the end of the evening. But in the performance, the deep feeling, flashes of virtuosity, and world-embracing humanism of Kala Chakra conquered all. And besides, it had a great beat, and you could dance to it.
David Wright, Boston Classical Review, April 12, 2015
“A difficult (albeit rewarding) first half gave way to BMV’s world premiere of its 2012 commission, Ka, by Shirish Korde, whose work perhaps most notably graced Boston stages in his 2010 opera, Phoolan Devi. Korde’s work is supremely complicated to hear, perform, and to understand, yet an immediate pleasure to listen to. Steeped in Vedic and Carnatic word-play, Ka playfully negotiates what is apparently a fine line between common and divine, between classical and folk, between speech and music, and — perhaps most impressively — between Eastern and Western music. The games we hear here may be somewhat obvious but still manage to say something clever and fun: although often (sometimes literally) opposed to each other, Indian instrumentalists and Western chamber musicians create something new and exciting that happily manages to eschew the awkward negotiations that are sometimes necessary for adapting World Music to the concert hall. Differences certainly exist; it’s hard not to notice the difference in the fluid straight-tone of Carnatic voice. Carnatic soprano Deepti Navaratna is certainly a promising young presence but seemed needlessly restrained on Friday evening, when paired with the rich vibrato of the cello (Jan Müller-Szeraws), or the quick strokes of the sitar (Chirag Katti). But far more impressive are the similarities: the cognitive assonance that arises when East meets West, invoked to work together on stage. Particularly illustrative is the third movement of KA, in which the tabla (here played by Amit Kavthekar) is placed in front of a miniature percussion section manned by Jonathan Hess. What occurs is almost impossible to describe; a garrulous tabla initiates a sharp competition with percussion that grows in intensity and fervor only to end in a surprisingly affable collaboration between the two musicians and the schools they represent. Although a technically-challenging composition, Korde’s work is certainly worth presenting to a broader audience; with any luck, Friday’s performance of the work will not be its last.”
Sudeep Agarwala, The Boston Musical Intelligencer
Phoolan Devi: The Bandit Queen
“Korde augments BMV’s six player core with three Indian musicians whose
contributions were particularly lovely: the composer mixes Indian traditions,
Bolywood exuberance, Asian pop and contemporary music with lush aplomb.”
Matthew Guerreri, The Boston Globe
“Shrish Korde’s brilliant Multi-Media chamber opera describing the life and times of Phoolan Devi had many original elements including setting an Atlantic Monthly interview to music and incorporating Indian classical music and dance alongside western operatic singing creating a very unusual and new sound.
In her short life, Phoolan Devi captured the popular imagination as a victim of social injustice, then as a dreaded avenger and finally as a charming politician who learned to skillfully exploit her past for political gain. Veteran classical composer Shirish Korde took on the challenge of translating this tale with all its gory and unpalatable details into a classical presentation. The product he created was not only tasteful and brilliant as a work of art but also succeeded in creating new sights and sounds by blending eastern and western classical music and dance. Music Director Richard Pittman and the Boston Musica Viva group, stage director Lynn Kremer, videographer Raphaele Shirley, set and light designer Barbara Craig, costume designer Kurt S. Hultgren and choreographers Prachi Dalal and Lynn Kremer, supported him in this task.
The event had several showings including one at the Tsai Center for the Performing Arts on April 24, 2010.
The interview in the Atlantic Monthly on Phoolan Devi was the motif for the production and amazingly every word from the interview was set to music. Korde deserves great applause for this composition. Taking ques from the interview the opera elaborated on different aspects of Phoolan’s life. Sopranos Zorana Sadiq and Elizabeth Keuch were wonderful as the Phoolon and the interviewer. Zorana’s singing was certainly a key highlight of the piece.
Opening with her happy childhood in a little village the opera depicted the life and times of little Phoolan who was born in a fisherman clan. The combination of the background visuals seamlessly integrated with the props succeeded in transporting the audience to the village. Kathak choreographies along with folk dances were used to show the life of Phoolon. Urmila Mallick was delightful as little Phoolon. While the dancing and the choreography were nice, there was not a tight amalgamation of this piece with the rest of the work and hence appeared to just be stuck in there rather than fully integrated and hence a little out of place.
Unlike the lack of integration in the dance portion the Western and Eastern classical music were tightly integrated and were absolutely seamless. Aditya Kalyanpur on the Tabla, Vocalist Deepti Navaratna and Chirga Katti on the Sitar were delightful. The high-pitched voice of Deepti (unusual for a Carnatic Vocalist) was smooth and Bhava laden as she rendered several Hindustani style music compositions. At many spots in the opera, Korde had Zorana and Deepti sing together. Their notes blended beautifully and it made for a wonderful musical experience.
After the childhood, the opera moves on to show the marriage of Phoolon at the age of 11 who was sold to man three times her age. Korde used M.S. Subbulakshmi’s Vishnu Sahasranamam as the background music for the wedding. Korde was obviously moved musically by the meter and the rendition and decided to use it. But the piece (which was referred to erroneously as Vedic Chants in the brochure) was rather out of place as a background score for a marriage in the Chambal Valley. Use of folk songs would have been more appropriate at Phoolon’s wedding. A more jarring note came when the same composition was used while depicting the gang rape of Phoolon. Later in the production Korde used the meter of the composition without using the words, which was more palatable. (Of course in an Indian composition the meter is considered as sacred as the composition itself, which is why the meter of Gayathri, is revered as Devi).
The second half the opera was more dynamic than the first. The use of lighting and shadow play to show both the abuse of Phoolon and later the tender uniting of Phoolon with her lover was marvelous. The use of North Indian folk songs was extremely appropriate and transported us to the ravines.
Phoolon’s transformation from an ordinary woman to the gang leader was appropriately depicted via a Durga Prayer. Mesma Belsare and Prachi Dalal’s brilliant choreography in the Durga piece fit beautifully into the piece even though it was in the Bharatanatyam style. The dance was choreographed to suit the mood of the piece and was not quite set to the words. The words of the song which referred to Durga in her beautiful form with reference to Shringara aspect of Devi would not have been appropriate for the moment and hence Dalal and Belsare decided to deviate from the words. Again Korde seems to have selected the piece more from a musical perspective rather than for the lyrics. Using a more powerful voice than Deepti’s (perhaps a male voice) for the Sollukattu rendition (Rhythmic Syllables) would have brought more power to the piece.
Mesma stole the show as the adult Phoolon. Her every move was carefully chosen to present the mood of the moment and each movement was filled with emotion. The music and modern dance choreography was appropriate and powerful as it showed the incarceration of Phoolon. Having Zorana sing pure notes (Sa Ra Ga Ma) as she is campaigning was nothing short of genius on Korde’s part. The visuals that drew both from newspaper articles of Phoolon Devi and those created to support the scene were magnificent.
Overall the effort was amazing. The story of Phoolon is not a classy tale and making it classy requires the hands of a master which Korde and his team prove they are. With so many elements in the Opera, creating a seamless presentation that leaves the audience asking from more is surely a daunting task and kudos to Korde for this brilliant work.”
Ranjani Saigal, Lokvani
“Nada-Ananda is an exuberant virtuoso display of rhythmic complexity. Nada-Ananda means “the joy of sound” an idea already captured in his music.”
Rowena Smith, The Guardian
“Nada-Ananda, a concerto for guitar and chamber ensemble, was the perfect conclusion to the program, shimmering with brilliance and interval and circular melody. A joyful dance and a celebration of life through music.”
Georgina Coburn, The Scotsman
“Svara-Yantra stole the show… a terrific piece in which the tradtional symphony is dropped into the middle of the subcontinent, exploding with color.”
Matthew Guerrieri, The Boston Globe
“The standing ovation at the end of the piece continued until Korde himself was forced to come to the front and acknowledge the cheering.”
John Zeugner, Worcester Telegram
“Svara-Yantra, a fabulous creation…certainly stole the show for the evening.”
Ranjani Saigal, Lokvani
Phoolan Devi Songs
“These are striking affairs, compelling with strong rhythmic appeal. It brought the house down.
Ken Winters, The Toronto Globe and Mail
“Soaring operatic vocal lines against dense, glinting harmonic masses in the six instruments…the evenings’s most satisfying performace.”
Matthew Guerrieri, The Boston Globe
Songs Of Ecstasy
“It integrates Eastern and Western traditions in a thoughtful and substantial way…the strings, flute, and percussion form a lush background for the soprano’s part which ranges through a variety of vocal styles drawn principally from Indian Classical Music. Two interludes for the Tabla, played by Aditya Kalyanpur were among the pieces most memorable moments. Elizabeth Keusch was the outstanding soprano.”
David Weininger, The Boston Globe
“By far the evening’s highlight was the premier of the ‘Four Poems’ of Rainer Maria Rilke’”
Jeremy Eichler, The Boston Globe
“Korde’s setting of Mondnacht (‘Moonlit Night’) on a poem by Rilke, captured the poem’s silvery mood through evocative arabesques in the violin and highly expressive vocal writing over undulating strings.”
Jeremy Eichler, The Boston Globe
“Nesting Cranes, is a shakukiachi-tinted flute with a string choir to lovely effect…the strings often breathing with the same natural cadences on the soloist–the pacing and dynamic shadings of the Korde work are masterful.”
Michael Cameron, Chicago Tribune
Tenderness Of Cranes
“The CD is rounded out by what is perhaps the most exceptional of the composer’s works, Tenderness of Cranes, and award winning composition for solo flute. The techniques used in this piece are derived from the techniques traditionally used in shakuhachi playing: breathy sound, pitch bending, variation on vibrato speed, and flutter-tonguing, in combination with contemporary flute techniques such as the use of special fingerings for microtonal and timbral variations and multiphonics. Tenderness of Cranes is a beautiful, original work that reflects many of the same cross-cultural tendencies encountered in Rasa, but in a more concise format. It is played brilliantly on this CD by flutist Jean DeMart, who has mastered all the new techniques demanded by the work. She delivers a flawless and moving performance.”
Computer Music Journal
“In this disc’s other work, Tenderness of Cranes, we find touches of folk style and an expansion of pitch range as quarter tones or less are pressed into the sound patterns. This fantasy-like piece of imaginative beauty derives its construction mainly from the use of melodic fragments. It too requires a virtuosic technique on solo flute. Sound is clear and warm in both works. This is a CD of considerable musical richness. Highly recommended.”
High Performance Review
“Tonally Shirish Korde’s Tenderness of Cranes is very exciting. The flute line is free and unpretentious, even with its use of quarter tones, glissandos, odd attacks, breathy notes. It is very “Eastern” in its independence from harmony. The solo line is interesting and balanced like a river that has its own unpredictable rhythms and multiple origins. The river here is air, and its course seems to travel West from Japan.”
American Record Guide
“Korde was especially well served by a passionate rendition of his Tenderness of Cranes by solo flutist Jean DeMart. This work, derived from the traditional Japanese shakuhachi piece Tsuru No Sugamori, integrated the techniques of that ancient instrument with the modern flute in a breath-taking composition of complex expressive layers that De Mart delivered with flawless virtuosity and profound feeling.
“In Blue Topeng, the aureate sound of the gamelan shimmers in the air, supported by the Western instruments and bamboo flute, and the pulsing, cyclical rhythms both soothe and excite.”
The Boston Globe
“Shirish Korde and Lynn Kramer’s awe-inspiring Chitra (2000). It’s difficult to imagine a more startling and entertaining close to the Boston Musica Viva’s 31st season.
Rabindranath Tagore’s Chitra, which is in itself a re-telling of an episode from the Mahabharata, a famous Hindu epic. Their opera is a dazzling mélange; with spoken and sung text in Hindi, Sanskrit, English, Urdu, Kawi (an ancient Sanskrit dialect) and Balinese. There is also plenty of dancing as well as interpretive English supertitles. The opera is fully-staged, with a pastoral set design by Ted Simpson, and exotic lighting by Joe Saint.
The dramatic space was separated form the ensemble by five fabric palm-trees, which were placed next to a large Balinese gamelan (set of gongs) tuned chromatically and created especially for the performance.
Shirish Korde’s musical scoring is an enormous feat in itself. A full ensemble of traditional western instruments (flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, and cello) meets tabla, sitar, tamboura, harmonium and gamelan—an enormous palette to reckon with. Korde’s expert blending of not only three styles of music (Western, Indian and Balinese) but two different tuning systems, is no small feat. This makes the legendary 1960s concerts of Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin seem like children at play. Where Indian classical music can often sound thin to a Western ear, Korde has used the richness of the violin and cello, for example, to flesh out the orchestration. Some organizing factor had to exist, so Korde chose a rhythmic cycle of 21 beats (namely, 11 beats plus 10 beats, with the first beat being the beginning and the end of the cycle), which he taught to the audience at the pre-performance lecture. He explained that this system, being cyclic, is therefore very much affected by Hindu philosophy. Individual players had the opportunity to shine. At many points Geoffrey Burleson’s expert pianism seemed to tie the whole thing together, serving as a foundation for the ensemble as much as the drone. And not enough praise can be given to Samir Chatterjee’s tabla playing, which supported almost all of the musical material (many sequences, both musical and choreographic, were doublings of the tabla). Pittman’s expert conducting gave the impression that the ensemble was enjoying itself, rather than struggling with the complex material.
Elizabeth Keusch, as “The Soprano” looked sumptuous in her gold crown and luscious black eye makeup, with smoky persona and knowing glances that heightened the theatrical atmosphere. This mellifluous but also commanding voice provided the perfect balance to I Nyoman Catra’s mad, multi-dialect sprechstimme. Her position for much of the performance was exactly center stage, indicating her presence in both the dramatic real and also as a member of the music ensemble. Keusch easily moved from subtle Mélisande-like introspection (singing the opening repeated phrase “for the first time in my life, I felt myself a woman, I knew that a man was before me…”) to an enthusiastic chanting Hare-Krishna devotee, her voice souring over the harmonium. As if this were not enough, she also sang bols, the drum syllables of Indian music, or Kecak rhythms (which are inspired by the Balinese monkey chant) or Indian solfège symbols (Fa, Ri, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni, Sa). Often the ensemble joined her singing. Likewise, she didn’t hesitate to pick up the drone or some gamelan mallets and jam along with the ensemble.
Korde and Kramer are presenting their own unique idea about one such possibility. The last line of Chitra’s exquisite libretto is “The fighting is finished, the stories go on forever. We apologize for stopping so soon.” While the apologies are accepted, let’s agree that this opera deserves more than one revival.”
Theodore Bale, “East Comes West,” May 4, 2000
Chitra and Blue Topeng
“Last night’s Boston Marquee concert at the Tsai Performance Center found Pittman and company performing works by Shirish Korde: the world premiere of a concert piece, Blue Topeng, and a revival of the composer’s opera/dance drama Chitra.
The main characters are the warrior-maiden Chitra (Tara Ahmed) and the demi-god Arjuna (I Nyoman Catra), whose love Chitra wins with the help of a couple of droll, growling gods. Portrayed by shadow puppets voiced by Catra, the pair looked and even sounded like Hindu versions of Beavis and Butthead- and weren’t averse to a contemporary reference or two, including a joke about the Big Dig.
Korde, of Indian background, taps musical sources including African, Indian, Balinese, Western classical and jazz. Both scores mingled instruments from Western and Eastern traditions, the latter revealing music that lies between the pitches of our do-re-mi scale.
Blue Topeng is a chamber concerto for instruments from the Balinese orchestra, or gamelan, and the BMV players. …
This shortish, three-movement work impressed with its metallic sheen and its formal construction. The sound was vivid indeed, as the BMV players alternated between their usual piano, violin, etc., and the gamelan instruments while guest soloists Desak Made Suarti Laksmi and Bethany Collier attacked their Balinese instruments with gusto and percussion.
Chitra is a joyously witty telling of a story from the Hindu epic, “The Mahabharata” that, in an adaptation by director Lynn Kremer, mixed classical Indian music and dance tradition with an almost vaudevillian spirit.
Soprano Elizabeth Keusch was splendid as the Narrator, tossing off Korde’s scat-like vocal line with warmth and confidence.”
T.J. Medrek, The Boston Herald, Mar 9, 2003
“Last weekend, conductor Richard Pittman and the Boston Musica Viva revisited one of their greatest hits, Chitra, an opera/dance drama by Shirish Korde that played to standing-room-only audiences in 2000.
…the series also commissioned a new piece by Korde to open the program,Blue Topeng. The new piece is a 20-minute work for Balinese gamelan and Western chamber ensemble; the Boston Musica Viva musicians played not only their own instruments, but Balinese percussion. The gorgeous purple-and-gold gamelan was especially built for Korde and the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester.
Before the piece, Korde provided an amiable introduction to instruments and music, marred only by the unprofessional handling of the microphone issue that should have been addressed before the audience arrived.
In Blue Topeng, the aureate sound of the gamelan shimmers in the air, supported by the Western instruments and bamboo flute, and the pulsing, cyclical rhythms both soothe and excite. One of the most beautiful effects is called “kotekan,” in which interlocking parts played by two instruments create one rapid melody. Blue Topeng is constructed as a set of variations; one theme comes fully into view only at the very end, Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.”
Chitra is based on an episode from the great Indian epic The Mahabharata. Chitra, a warrior queen, has been raised as a man; to beguile the demigod Arjuna, she asks the gods to make her a beautiful woman. She doesn’t like the result, feeling dishonest. Ultimately, love can flower only when planted in honesty and trust.
Korde tells the tale in six Asian languages and in English ranging from highfalutin to low comedy; one god takes credit for the Big Dig. Korde also uses song and dance; the slap of Indian classical dancer Tara Ahmed’s feet on the floor and the ringing of bells on her ankles become part of the music. Guiding us through the maze is a narrator, soprano Elizabeth Keusch, who sang across a range of Western and Asian vocal styles with precision, aplomb, and pellucid tone.”
Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe, March 10, 2003
“Musica Viva’s two big pieces by Shirish Korde, at the Tsai Center last weekend, synthesized the music of at least four cultures with dance, song, mime, poetry, and puppet performance, also in multicultural styles.
In his brief introduction to Blue Topeng, which was having its world premiere Saturday night, Korde described the stylistic mesh of his concerto for Balinese and Western instruments.
The Balinese instruments are part of a gamelan made for Holy Cross College, where Korde heads the music department, and he explained that one of the metallophones and the trompong (a set of tuned brass bowls) had been built to play a chromatic scale in addition to its standard Balinese tuning. This unusual design made for more compatibility with the Western instruments.
With Musica Viva’s Richard Pittman conducting, Blue Topeng featured the flashy, unpredictable style of Balinese Kebyar, a slow movement with Balinese flute (suling), and a more sustained final movement where the solo women played interlocking rhythms along with drums, clarinet, flute and strings. Even jazz made its way into the agreeable mix. At one point, accompanied by the cello, Desak sang a chorus of “Mood Indigo” in a high wordless soprano.
Blue Topeng at times reminded me of some of McPhee’s gamelan-influenced orchestral works. Korde’s dance drama Chitra (first performed in 2000) turned from the rambunctious clang of the gamelan to the more melodic unfurling of the sitar, voice, and tabla, which led the ensemble through a staged excerpt from the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Combining elements of Indian music and dance with Balinese dance and puppetry, Chitra dips into a tremendous, philosophical literature where mortals and deities meet, clash, fall in love, make mistakes, find their way home, deceive each other, die, resurface in other stories.
Directed by Lynn Kremer, Chitra seemed less a narrative than a series of meditations on an unfolding relationship between the hunter god Arjuna and Chitra, a young woman raised to hunt and lead her tribe. The narrative stretches over a year’s time, debating the nature of male and female, desire and denial, competition and compatibility. At the end of the play, Chitra and Arjuna are happily united but that’s probably not the end of the story.
The majestic soprano Elizabeth Keusch sat with the orchestra and told the story in English and Sanskrit, song and chant, sometimes commenting on the characters and offering counsel to the audience.
Keusch was wonderful, but there was so much to see—puppets, moving screens, a stylized mountain backdrop with another screen behind it, the actors and musicians in gorgeous intense colors, the instruments themselves. The whole panoply deserved to be spread out in a space big enough to match its expansive concept.”
Marcia B. Siegel, The Boston Phoenix Arts, March 14, 2003
“The showpiece of the evening was the 100th composition commissioned by Da Capo since its inception: Phoolan Devi Songs by Shirish Korde, three excerpts from an opera-in-progress about Ms. Devi, the Indian “Bandit Queen” and legislator who was assassinated in 2001.
This is a colorful, attractive piece, set on a lush, gaudy bed of amplification, aiming at an entertaining stylistic fusion; it will perhaps take a more charismatic singer than the game Alexandra Montano to play the lead role, defiantly non-Western in its vocal writing. The highlight was the tabla playing of Samir Chatterjee in the final scene, which stood out from the other instruments with the kind of vivid, exciting performance that draws Western composers to non-Western music in the first place.”
Ann Midgette, “Wading Deeply in Melodic Streams that Flow from the East,” New York Times
“Three years ago, Richard Pittman and the Boston Musica Viva introduced one of their greatest hits, the opera/dance-drama Chitra by composer Shirish Korde, who teaches at Holy Cross in Worcester—people had to be turned away at the door.
Shirish Korde is completely trained in Indian classical music, Western classical music, and in jazz. This piece is a fusion of Balinese music and Western music, and we have some extraordinary guest performers.
It also commissioned a new work from Korde to open the program, Blue Topeng, a work for gamelan. The ‘Blue’ in the title…comes from the inclusion of Duke Ellingon’s ‘Mood Indigo.’”
Richard Dyer The Boston Globe, March 7, 2003
“This multi-media chamber opera makes a strongly positive statement for the New England Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, both which commissioned it. Rasa, remarkable in its beauty and subtlety, is of considerable musical richness and is deserving of widespread performances.”
American Record Guide
In Rasa, “the listener encounters a truly post-modern blend of musical languages, ranging from the Orff-like rhythms of the Wheelchair Dance, through the parody of 19th century traditional tonal composition, to the Ives-like multi-level resonances of I Want Thee. All of these cross cultural resonances seem to have as their purpose the enrichment of Jasmine’s gradual enlightenment as she encounters a world full of new, unfamiliar ideas and feelings. Most striking in the regard is the opera’s serene epilogue (Wonders of Flowers), in which flute music, distinctly flavored by the Japanese Shakuhachi, brings to close this young woman’s passage through the vagaries of contemporary American life. For the listener, at this moment, Asia, America, and by its implication the many other cultures encountered in the Opera, come together in this one individual–Jasmine.”
Computer Music Journal
“The onstage orchestra and Pittman- all barefoot and costumed in bright Indian garb- had a hybrid look: tabla next to cello, sitar next to piano and harmonium. Simple drones for folklike tunes gave way to complex 21-beat classical phrase structures, or to music with Western contemporary of jazz derivations. Sometimes the orchestra chanted and yelled, like the audience in a village play. They seemed to be enjoying themselves.
A concert singer (the gifted Elizabeth Keusch) acted as narrator and had the voice of Chitra. Serene of presence, cool of tone, and lucid of diction, Keusch’s lyric soprano bent itself around Indian-style coloratura, and scatted on Indian drumming and solefege syllables with masterful ease.
Tara Ahmed danced the role of the warrior/seductress with edgy verve.
Ted Simpson’s set- sparsely furnished with trees that resembled parasols, rolling shadowboxes, and a stylized painted forest – held visual interest without insisting on itself. But did this mix of styles and form achieve fusion? The enthusiastic audience answered that question in the affirmative.”
Susan Larson, The Boston Globe, May 2, 2000
“Time Grids is a fiercely atonal essay for amplified guitar and computer synthesized tape with great rhythmic energy and some of the best interlacing of electronic sounds and guitar that I have yet heard from this relatively new medium. The work’s last movement culminates in a thrilling accretion of volume and texture, making a wonderful end to the album.”
“Shirish Korde’s Time Grids is the anchor of this offering. The producer of this release, The Great American Guitar Solo, he appreciates the power of the acoustic guitar, but takes it into the high-tech realm of computer-synthesized sounds. To him, the musical notions of augmentation and diminution are merely ways of parsing out time (an intellectual concept that the novelist Vladmir Nabokov claimed had a texture all its own). Wave-form frequency, likewise, can only be renedered in terms of time coordinates, and this, I believe, is the key to Korde’s stunning Time Grids.
Korde plays the full sonic spectrum, and does so with great skill and aplomb. His final movement, Mechanico, is truly disturbing in its manic obsessiveness–and show, like the rest of his sonically arresting piece, a fine marriage between the acoustic guitar and the computer age.”
“Worth several listens is Shirish Korde’s Time Grids, another guitar-and-tape piece that manipulates clock and bell ticking into a busy gamelan ensemble. A mini electronic concerto for guitar and Indonesian orchestra? Now that’s cool.”
American Record Guide
Chamber Piece for Six Soloists
“Neuma, a label based in Acton, Mass., offers seven recent works in a sampler reminiscent of the new-music collections the major labels offered in the 1960’s; indeed, a 60’s avant-garde esthetic pervades the disk. Most enjoyable are two electronic pieces. Jean-Claude Risset’s “Contours,” a tactile and sometimes spacily atmospheric work, is a study in thematic transformation; and Anna Rubin’s “Crying the Laughing and Golden” uses the sound of laughter and whispering to create an evocative, intensely emotional soundscape. Interesting too are the glittering, variegated Chamber Piece by Shirish Korde, and Drake Mabry’s “12.5.83,” a fleet virtuosic essay for alto recorder.”
New York Times