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The Splendid Tabla: New Indian Flavors For Orchestra

Mumbai's Chattrapathi Shivaji Terminus railway station, one of the most famous locales in the city and a site attacked by terrorists in May 2010.
Punit Paranjpe
AFP/Getty Images
Mumbai's Chattrapathi Shivaji Terminus railway station, one of the most famous locales in the city and a site attacked by terrorists in May 2010.

(Classical Detours meanders through stylistic byways, exploring new recordings from the fringes of classical music.)

By whatever name you call it — Mumbai, Bombay, Bombaim — India's largest city is a culturally complicated and gloriously layered place. Despite its main train station being officially redubbed Chhatraptai Shivaji Terminus some years ago, I've never met a Mumbaikar (Mumbai resident) who calls it anything other than Victoria (as in the British queen) Terminus, or VT. In the Mumbai suburb of Bandra stands the Portuguese-era Castella de Aguada, aka the Bandra Fort. Mumbai isn't so much a melting pot as it is like chaat, the addictive snack sold all along its Chowpatty Beach: simultaneously spicy, sweet, savory and sour.

Those kinds of balances have long fascinated composer Evan Ziporyn. Along with teaching composition at MIT, Ziporyn is an expert in Balinese gamelan. He founded the wonderful Boston-based Gamelan Galak Tika and is a founding member of the ever eclectic New York-based new music collective Bang on a Can. Those cultural interchanges pervade Mumbai, a concerto for the expressive Indian percussion called the tabla.

In his written introduction to this recording, Ziporyn notes the upsetting circumstances that surrounded the composition of this work, which features tabla player Sandeep Das with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and conductor Gil Rose. In 2008, just after Ziporyn began writing, terrorist attacks in Mumbai, including at VT, shook India and the rest of the world. As his response to those events, the piece's three movements became structured as Before, During and After. But Mumbai isn't a work that catalyzes grief. Instead, it's luminous and dreamlike, unfolding with a glow and a sense of wonder both intimate and soaring. This is music you climb inside as the tabla cuts through the gleaming strings.

Ziporyn's way of framing the excellent Das, a member of the Silk Road Ensemble, as soloist carries a deep satisfaction for lovers of Indian classical music. It wasn't all that long ago that this instrument (which is actually two drums, a right-handed drum that's the tabla proper and the left-handed, deeper-voiced drum called the bayan) weren't accepted within Indian classical music as worthy solo instruments. It was relegated instead as mere rhythmic accompaniment to singers or melodic instruments. It took the extraordinary talents of one virtuoso, Ustad Alla Rakha (the father of the very popular and gifted musician Zakir Hussain) to change that paradigm in the 1950s and 1960s. Given that tabla has been used for centuries, and that ancestral precursors like the double-headed pakhawaj have been around for even longer, the popularity of tabla in solo roles is, relatively speaking, brand new.

The companion piece, Big Grenadilla, is an amazing, virtuosic showpiece for bass clarinet, played by Ziporyn himself with Rose and the BMOP. And this brief 14-minute concerto is in itself worth a serious visit. A concerto for the hulking and awkward bass clarinet, you may ask? Yes, most assuredly and delightfully so — at least as long as it's in Ziporyn's hands. Here the terrain is more like a stage at an indie rock show than a meditative landscape. At the beginning, his clarinet growls and buzzes like an electric guitar — and by the end, Ziporyn is wailing away like a rock legend, bathed in the light of the orchestra's pumping, frenetic energy. It's a whole other side of Ziporyn, a composer as variegated as the cultures he celebrates.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.