North Indian classical music, as mastered by sitarist Ravi Shankar, ranks among the more sublime and spiritually-inclined traditions in the world of music. The last thing one would wish on such refinement is the scourge of technical difficulties, but that's exactly what befell Shankar's appearance at the Alex Theater in Glendale on Saturday night.
After the rubato alap development section of an evening raga opening the concert, the delicate flow of the music was rudely interrupted as technicians attended to a dysfunctional PA system. None in the sold-out house could deny the scent of irony here, while this ancient music, a refuge from modern anxiety, was sabotaged by the world of wires.
After 10 p.m. the musicians finally resumed their places on the elevated, colorfully decorated platform on the stage, and the concert proceeded until after midnight. There were further problems on the technical front, in sound and also a bizarre lighting mishap--it was as if the hall was haunted.
But the power of music prevailed, and Shankar weathered the intrusions with hardly a twitch of impatience. At age 75, and with a global profile dating back 25 years, Shankar remains the principal emissary for Indian classical.
In Indian music this expressive and this grounded in improvisation, there is little room for rote performance, and Shankar was expectedly vital and alert this night. Shankar wears his "living legend" mantle well, investing a great weight and expression in each nuance, producing a liquidity that seems to transcend the physicality of his steel and wood instrument.
Shankar ably demonstrated the intuitive, strongly empathetic connection he has with longstanding collaborator, tabla player Zakir Hussain, whose nimble rhythmic assertions were both percussive and tonal. Their intimate cross-talk resembled a blend of the best qualities of classical and jazz idioms.
This was also the night that Shankar's daughter, Anoushka Shankar, made her American debut on sitar, showing a solid, if formative musicality. Partho Sarathy, on the darker-toned sarod, offered his own supportive role later in the concert, with call-and-response phrases in the concluding raga, an extended and ecstatic finale.
Here, at last, was compelling proof that profundity conquers adversity. Suggestions for next year: a larger hall and a more reliable sound system. If Shankar doesn't deserve the best, no one does.