Musical Encounter Between East and West in Plymouth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Ash Madni, Mendelssohn: Bristol Ensemble Piano Trio (Roger Huckle, Robyn Austin & Christopher Northam), Plymouth University Sherwell Centre, UK. 26.5. 2012 (PRB)

Ash Madni: We shall never forget them – dedicated to the British Armed Forces
Carnatic Variations
Journey to the Court of Kublai Khan
Mendelssohn: Piano Trio No 1 in D minor, Op 49

‘East Meets West’ is a well-worn cliché frequently encountered in the realms of culture and cooking. Musicians have made numerous attempts to integrate different styles, culminating in the Beatles’ popularising Indian Music in the late 60s. But, as with its culinary counterpart, getting the balance and mix just right often proves the stumbling block.

While self-taught musician and composer, Ash Madni – an integrated-circuit designer by day – might still not have found the perfect solution (assuming there is one), his music, first-heard locally at the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival in February 2012 (a collaboration between the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research (ICCMR) and Plymouth University) is certainly worth further investigation.

Peninsula Arts’ on-going Chamber Music Series has just provided the ideal opportunity for this, by promoting a concert combining works by Madni in the first half with an iconic work by Mendelssohn in the second, featuring violinist Roger Huckle, cellist Robyn Austin, and Christopher Northam (piano), all members of the larger Bristol Ensemble

While ‘Two’s company, three’s a crowd’, might appear to apply more to personal relationships, than concert-planning, it did, however, seem to apply to this programme of music by two composers of quite opposite polarity. For, just as the services of a chaperone could prove advantageous in the former, there’s often a case for something similar in the latter.

Had this recital opened with a light aperitif by a third composer, a short Haydn trio for example, it might actually have better benefited the programme’s avowed intent to convey a sense of East-West fusion, rather than contrast alone. Simply juxtaposing two quite different entities cannot really achieve the desired effect, any less than two instruments playing from the same part really need a third one to even out any discrepancies.

Without a doubt, Madni has again successfully merged elements of his native Indian music with Western traditions, creating a unique sound-stage that is more than merely superficially imbued with exotic colours, harmonies and textures for effect alone. No mere thoughts of adding some appropriate spices on serving up, here everything was felt to be ‘cooking’ together from the very inception.

As a result, though, there can sometimes be a sameness from one section to the next, and while this seemed more apparent in the substantial Carnatic Variations, it didn’t actually arise from a true sense of any recurring theme linking the movements. Perhaps ‘variations’ in the Western sense wasn’t the intention when titling the work, as even the composer’s programme notes seem to allude more to a Carnatic (i.e. from the south of the sub-continent) ‘element’. Anyone expecting any original theme to return inverted, slowed down, and in the major key – Rachmaninov’s simple, yet so stunningly successful transformation of Paganini’s theme in the much-famed 18th Variation – could be disappointed.

We shall never forget them, dedicated to the British Armed Forces, which opened the recital, proved especially impressive, as it was a model of concision, speaking directly to the heart, with a simple, yet emotive message.

Journey to the Court of Kublai Khan certainly communicated its literary programme effectively, though could perhaps have been sacrificed in the cause of overall intrinsic balance, had the programme had an alternative starting piece. Alternatively, with some slight pruning, linking the three separate movements more effectively into a single ‘tone poem’ whole, might equally have been a viable option.

The players, who had given a most commendable performance of Madni’s works, with its rhythmic complexities – 13/16 time in the opening of the Carnatic Variations, for example – and a frequently excessive note-count per bar, returned to give a no-nonsense account of Mendelssohn’s D minor Piano Trio, where the two strings very much had the edge in terms of their expressive playing and ability to project musically over the piano-playing of Christopher Northam, who nevertheless managed the extreme virtuosity of the composer’s writing, while clearly inconvenienced by an annoyingly sticky C sharp key at times.

This concluded an enjoyable concert, though one which didn’t score quite so highly on pure presentation itself. This is something which can always be so easily improved upon and is frequently overlooked, but which goes hand in hand with the ultimate success of any performance.

Philip R Buttall