Sunday 23 October 2022

Sarojini: Shruthi Rajasekar's new piece, premiered by Hertfordshire Chorus, merges Western classical and Carnatic musical traditions

Sarojini Naidu
Sarojini Naidu
Shruthi Rajasekar: Sarojini, Karl Jenkins: The Armed Man, Nirmala Rajasekar, Thanjavur Murugaboopathi, Ana Beard Fernandez, Osama Kiwan, Hertfordshire Chorus, London Orchestra da Camera; St Albans Cathedral
Reviewed 22 October 2022 (★★★★)

Hertfordshire Chorus bring a wonderful sense of engagement to their striking programme of two contemporary works, each representing something of a fusion between different musics and different styles

Shruthi Rajasekar is a young Indian American composer whose background includes training in both Western classical and South Indian classical music. Her new work, Sarojini, reflects these intersections. A commission from Hertfordshire Chorus, Shruthi Rajasekar's Sarojni was premiered by the chorus with London Orchestra da Camera, soloists Nirmala Rajasekar (veena & voice), Thanjavur Murugaboopathi (mridangam), conductor David Temple at St Albans Cathedral on 22 October 2022. The work was paired with Karl JenkinsThe Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, with soloists Ana Beard Fernandez (soprano) and Osama Kiwan (muezzin).

Shruthi Rajasekar's mother, Nirmala Rajasekar, is one of the premier Saraswati veena players in the world (and also one of the evening's soloists), so Shruthi Rajasekar grew up studying Carnatic music, but was also trained in Western classical. The two systems have some elements in common, but the divergences mean that combining the two requires a delicate negotiation. 

This year is the 75th anniversary of Indian Independence, and Sarojini explores this theme through the person of the Indian political activist, feminist and poet Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949), a figure of considerable importance in the first half of the 20th century, but whose role has been somewhat overshadowed. Shruthi Rajasekar's text for Sarojini, merged Sarojini Naidu's words with other texts to take us through major events, beginning with her life as an artist, moving through her powerful poem about the British Raj's looting of Indian resources (including its people during the First World War), the role of women in the independence movement, independence itself, and a final movement referencing India after independence.

Nirmala Rajasekar's veena playing was used very much as a punctuation, giving a sense of the duality of the Sarojini Naidu's world, the wonderful improvisatory veena solos often supported by rhythmic drones from the orchestra and sometimes the choir. Only during the third movement, The Real Nation-Builders do the two come together. Nirmala Rajasekar played and sang a traditional Sanskrit prayer to the Goddess Lakshmi against the background of the choir singing Sarojini Naidu's English ode to Lakshmi. The results were intriguing and imaginative, a brief coming together. The next movement had a coming together of a different sort, as included in the music was Pandit Ravi Shankar Jr's setting of words by Allama Muhammed Iqbal, Saare Jahan Se Accha, which the audience was encouraged to join in (and many did, singing lustily). This was followed by a huge climax, the repetitive rhythmic figure which brought everyone, chorus, orchestra, veena and mridangam, reflected a particular type of Carnatic music and drew the work to an ecstatic (and near orgiastic) climax.

But Shruthi Rajasekar's writing gave the chorus plenty of moments on their own, giving them their own challenges. Her writing might be in the Western classical idiom, but from the opening notes of the first chorus there was a different sense to the sound world, the scales that she used, her use of strong unisons over rhythmic orchestral patterns, and an interesting use of heterophony. Thanjavur Murugaboopathi's drums played a significant role in the evening, both supporting Nirmala Rajasekar and contributing to the overall percussion in the work (there was a timpanist plus two Western percussion players). 

The chorus gave a supremely committed and enthusiastic performance, their enjoyment of the work's challenges palpable and throughout they were well supported by the orchestra. 

Shruthi Rajasekar's use of Carnatic music and the way she made it intersect with Western classical, without either music quite losing its own identity, was a neat metaphor for the story that the piece was telling, the story of India in the 20th century. It will be interesting to see whether other choirs take up the challenge of combining Western classical and South Indian musics, certainly Shruthi Rajasekar's Sarojini is imaginatively constructed and approachable without seeming to dumb down, and throughout the work I was struck by her use of the different textures possible with her performing forces.

In a piece of canny programming, the choir paired the work with another large-scale piece that is slightly at a tangent to the academic classical tradition, Karl Jenkins' The Armed Man. The work was commissioned by the Royal Armouries to mark the Millennium and was dedicated to the victims of the Kosovan conflict. It combines texts from the Latin mass with other sources and includes a solo movement for Muezzin (though Jenkins does not attempt to combine this with the Western classical performers, Osama Kiwan sang solo). Jenkins background includes training at the Royal Academy of Music, jazz, film music and working with the jazz-rock-fusion group Soft Machine. He seems to have approached The Armed Man in a filmic way, each movement evoking a particular emotion or colour. Highly effective in the way it is written, and with a number of memorable tunes. the work is approachable, and Jenkins' ideas never outstay their welcome.

The choir brought a lovely energy and engagement to the performance, and it was their contribution which made the evening so striking, giving the piece a feeling of community engagement. There were fine contributions too from soprano Ana Beard Fernandez, singing with poise and beauty of tone.   

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