In this Asia TOPA exclusive, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was slated to perform the The Music of AR Rahman, with the superstar himself taking to the stage as special guest. Featuring signature works such as ‘Jai Ho’ and ‘Slumdog Millionaire Suite’, this one-of-a-kind concert was to see the MSO joined by international guest soloists, S. Navin on flute and Asad Khan on sitar as well as Opera Australia vocal soloists and the 30 voice Polyphonic Voices choir.
AR Rahman, the music composer is a name familiar to people of Indian origin. The larger community might know him for his Academy Award winning composition for the film Slumdog Millionaire. He has been described by The Times as ‘the world’s most prolific and popular composer’ and his music combines the delicate intricacy of eastern classical composition with the innovations of electronic music and the majesty of traditional orchestral arrangements.
The promise of a pure evening of mesmerising music opened with the pre-concert entertainment. The combination of Bobby Singh’s tabla and Jeff Lang’s guitar lifted spirits and added a sense of positive anticipation for some musical magic. This atmosphere continued as the MSO and Matt Dunkley, the conductor/music director. were welcomed on stage with a roaring applause – a sign of the eagerness of the audience to see the man himself.
The MSO played 18 of Rahman’s popular compositions, a large number of them from a slew of patriotic themed Indian films. The music was epic, larger than life and lent itself to be played by a western classical orchestra. The other themes included tributes to musical directors and actresses of Indian cinema over the years, which added a touch of nostalgia for those in the know.
Different instruments took the lead in different songs – violins and flute in the ‘Bombay Theme’ and the accordion in ‘Swades’ which was a delight to the listener. The Polyphonic Voices Choir held their own, managing to master some of the key lines from Hindi songs. This gave a 3 dimensional perspective to Indian film music, which is largely either listened to or watched in the form of a music video. The smoothness of the acoustics was especially notable – an effect which is not always easy to achieve. Instruments like the harp were amplified and the chorus was blurred to make it all one big sound which added to the epic nature of the music.
The orchestra was also complemented by well-timed lighting effects and projections on the screen, which sometimes portrayed a condensed film (telling the story of a feature film in a few minutes) while the music played, other times key images or just glittering stars in the background.
The only two pieces with lead vocals were sung with great energy and gusto by Julie Lea Goodwin and Nicholas Jones, including numbers from the The Lord of the Rings musical and the finale, ‘Jai Ho’, from Slumdog Millionaire. It was strange hearing western opera singers do Hindi, but full credit to them for making it work. S. Navin, the guest musician was divine on flute, however Asad Khan stole the show towards the end with his sitar accompaniment for the Slumdog Millionaire theme. He slightly overshadowed Rahman on the piano which is no mean feat.
Rahman came out for three pieces, welcomed with massive roars as expected. He played a solo piece on the piano from The Hundred-Foot Journey, which he described as having influences from Indian and French music. He came back for the finale, which included the Slumdog Millionaire theme, and the last piece ‘Jai Ho’, which saw all musicians and vocalists on stage.
The evening was majestic and offered a unique experience, but wasn’t without some disappointments. Gates opening about 30 mins later than promised, which thankfully didn’t affect the beginning of the concert. The choice of music could have included more popular songs, and the tempo of the evening could have built to a final crescendo. Every piece had its own journey, but the evening itself lacked in creating that journey for the audience. Although ‘Jai Ho’ was a fitting ending, it didn’t quite put the maestro at the forefront, which was the final disappointment. If I were a ticket buyer, I would have liked to see more of Rahman performing or even being present on stage, rather than just his music.
One can’t help feeling a tiny bit dissatisfied, however as an inter-cultural fusion, the experience was well worth it.
Sidney Myer Music Bowl, 16th Feb 2017