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Music Review

Sitar Meets Chant in Understated Performance

November 02, 1998|JOHN HENKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Originally a recording concept, the "Meeting of Angels" mix of Gregorian chant and North Indian sitar music has been transposed into an unlikely but viable touring concert. Sitarist Ustad Nishat Khan and the Gregorian Voices quartet arrived Friday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on their first trip through the U.S.

As with similar New Age conceits, such as the Jan Garbarek/Hilliard Ensemble "Officium," a certain suspension of cynical and purist impulses is required here. Take disparate meditative and liturgical music out of context, blend it through hot and reverberant amplification in a modern concert hall with polite applause and much tuning between numbers, and kiss both stylistic coherence and spiritual transcendence goodbye.

What you did get in this case was surprisingly earthy music about music, particularly melodic inflection and the roots of Western polyphony. With the gracefully gliding sitar ornaments borrowed by the voices and occasional forays into basic organum-style close harmony, the results frequently suggested Eastern European folk music, especially the singing of Bulgarian women's choirs.

A mixed quartet with close connections to Dominique Vellard and his Ensemble Gilles Binchois, the Gregorian Voices of Anne Quentin, Caroline Magalhaes, Raphael Boulay and Eric Gervais delivered fluid, electronically warmed, vibrato-free vocalism. The women offered most of the persuasive and inspiring lessons in organum, the medieval wellspring of distinctively European counterpoint, with the men concentrating more on melodic embellishment.

No texts or translations were provided for the music, mostly chants for the Introit and Alleluia sections of the Roman Catholic Mass. Nonspecificity seemed part of the point of this cultural fusion, and although the singers' diction was eminently clear, they might as well have been singing wordless vocalises in terms of the content and progression of the program.

Some of the numbers were unaccompanied, but in most of them Nishat Khan established a gentle drone support and then picked up chant phrases for modest elaboration and transformation. The textures and melodies were relatively simple and undemonstrative in the sitar's native terms--East met West much more than halfway in this case.

In demonstration of his technical prowess, the sitarist had two solos, with no supporting tambura or tabla players here, as there apparently have been in European appearances by the troupe. The first was an elegant, much abbreviated morning raga, and the second a florid, unidentified piece that seemed to be a bit of chant treated as an Indian folk song.

The original "Meeting of Angels" CD held only 45 minutes of music and there wasn't much more here, although a late start, long intermission and breaks for tuning and amiable anecdotes from Nishat Khan stretched it out for almost two hours. Patience is not the best virtue to test in a contemplative program, but the rewards doled out in short segments enhanced appreciation of the underlying musical forces of two cultures--an appreciation more powerful for being conveyed in sound rather than textbooks.

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