There was every reason to expect a compelling evening of Indian music Thursday at the Skirball Cultural Center. The performance, part of the Daniel Pearl World Music Days series, featured sarod player K. Sridhar and tabla player Anindo Chatterjee.
It seemed an intriguing combination. The sarod, a fretless, lute-like instrument with extremely taut strings, is difficult to play but is viewed by many as the most expressive voice in the canon of Indian instruments; Chatterjee's formidable percussion skills have made him a favorite of some of the world's finest artists. Those qualities, combined with Sridhar's fascination with the disparate traditions of Hindustani and Carnatic music, and his discipleship with the great sarod master, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, created a palpable air of anticipation at the start of the program.
But it wasn't to be. Although Sridhar began with the atmospheric sound of Khan's late-night, moon-oriented raga Chandranandan, his long, solo passage failed to deliver the intimate exploration of the raga needed to bring the music alive. The program's second raga -- the often-performed Bhairavi -- brought somewhat more touching results. But in both cases, Sridhar's mastery of the instrument overshadowed his much-praised improvisatory imagination.
Although occasional rudimentary accents added much needed touches of paired exhilaration, more often Sridhar and Chatterjee seemed to be living in separate rhythmic universes. Nor was the flow enhanced by Sridhar's tendency to play repetitious, on-the-beat phrases, preventing Chatterjee -- other than within a few solo passages -- from generating the sort of invigorating, rhythmically free-flowing energy one expects from a world-class tabla artist.
So when Sridhar announced at the close that this was the first time he had performed with Chatterjee, and that they'd met just a couple of days ago, it was no surprise. You could have guessed that from the music.