Many elements have figured in the Ravi Shankar legend, making him the sitarist of record for most listeners in this country. But the durable core component--beyond technical and sociological factors--is his obvious pleasure in his music and the ability to communicate.
That is what made his four-hour marathon, Sunday evening at Ambassador Auditorium, an expansive exercise in shared joys.
The evening was very much a family affair. Joining the master were his son, sitarist Shubho Shankar, and tabla player Zakir Hussain, son of longtime colleague Alla Rakha. Sponsoring the concert was the Music Circle, the support organization that Shankar and Harihar Rao founded here in 1973.
Shankar also made the almost capacity, multicultural crowd an extended family. Whether in deference to uninitiated Western ears or to his virtuosic tabla collaborator, Shankar focused his work in four evening ragas on the metrical gats , rather than the more introspective melodic nuances of the alap sections.
The high point in this regard was the monumental effort in a raga of his own invention that began the second half. Economy of materials was the key here, with an easily recognizable tune in a heavy seven-beat meter. Mutually teasing and challenging, the musicians volleyed improvisatory riffs back and forth, shaking the foundation to the point of disintegration, then jumping emphatically back on the basic tune.
Not that Shankar scamped probing interpretive finesse, understand. He explored the low range of his instrument particularly with rare, plangent depth of sound and feeling, and a technical facility still astonishing after all these years. His alap rhapsodies were firmly rooted in tradition, rising in pitch and intensity.
Like Shankar, Zakir Hussain is a crossover veteran as well as a classical virtuoso, and he can mimic sitar techniques and riffs with uncanny precision. In the finale they mixed various elements in the musical equivalent of bilingual puns, Shankar leading a playful call-and-response chase to the exuberant close.
Also participating was tabla player Abhiman Kaushal. His exchanges with Hussain proved a veritable masterclass in drumming. Drone accompaniment was provided throughout on two tanpuras.