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'Saamagam,' A New Cross-Cultural Concerto By Amjad Ali Khan

Amjad Ali Khan performs his concerto <em>Samaagam</em> with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Mumbai.
Pip Eastop
World Village Records
Amjad Ali Khan performs his concerto Samaagam with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Mumbai.

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

If you are over 40 and a Westerner like me, your introduction to Indian classical music was probably courtesy of the Beatles. Perhaps the 1966 song "Love You To" from Revolver, or the more elaborate "Within You Without You" from Sgt. Pepper's a year later. Both feature George Harrison playing sitar. (You can see him practicing with his teacher Ravi Shankar in the 1971 documentary Raga, newly released on DVD.)

Beatles producer George Martin added symphonic strings to "Within You Without You," making it one of the first East-meets-West mashups to penetrate popular culture. Others have followed, including Shankar's own Concerto for Sitar, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1971.

And now, 40 years later, we have a brand new concerto by another Indian master musician — Amjad Ali Khan, widely regarded as the world's finest sarod player. His instrument is a smaller, fretless and darker-toned cousin of the sitar, and a staple of northern Indian (Hindustani) classical music. Like the sitar, it has a row of strings that vibrate in sympathy with the others used for melody and drone. Khan comes from six generations of musicians, and some have conjectured that it was one of his ancestors who actually invented the sarod.

At age 65, Khan has performed for nearly 60 years. He's a longtime fan of European classical music ("Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky; the works!") and finally the time seemed right to compose his first concerto. He was asked to write a piece for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. With conductor David Murphy, they debuted the concerto in 2008 in Orkney, and now they've regrouped for this new recording, scheduled for release May 10.

Danny Peng / World Village
World Village

The piece's full title is Samaagam: A Concerto for Sarod, Concertante Group and String Orchestra. In Sanskrit, samaagam refers to a confluence, or flowing together, and Khan (along with help from Murphy's insights into Indian music) has done a pretty good job of keeping true to his title.

The excerpt below, "Swar Samir," opens with calls from the brass and winds and responses from Khan's sarod. When the beat kicks in (thanks to tabla player Vineet Vyas) strings sway and slither in ways not unlike what we were introduced to all those years ago in "Within You Without You." It serves as a launching pad for a heartfelt solo by Khan.

For his 45-minute concerto, Khan draws from at least ten different ragas — the melodic seeds of Indian classical compositions. Even though a single piece can last hours, Khan says his concerto is like a "bouquet of ragas," with three of them figuring prominently in the final movement. Khan's beautiful solo versions of them open the disc, another pleasing East-West partnership.

If you're in the mood for more music from Asia, you can eavesdrop on our Tiny Desk Concert with pipa virtuoso Wu Man.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.