Sometimes you just gotta trust a friend. Every year Duke Performances has a concert series you can buy into at a package discount. I pick up seats for the shows I wanna see before it all starts, and watch the dates roll forward and wash over me as the year unfolds. At the suggestion of my buddy JD, I decided to take a chance on an artist I’d never heard this fall, even though the tix were pricey by my standards: Indian violin player L. Subramaniam, who was playing a trio set with his son Ambi on second violin and a hand drum player.
It became apparent as I approached the theater that this man was far from an obscure figure in the land of his birth. I knew that on an intellectual level from the program notes, but it was something else to see colorful and fancy traditional Indian clothes on parade as audience members with roots in and ties to the Subcontinent streamed towards and through the entrance. Once seated, we all struggled to hear the leader’s introductory comments on the pieces, which were spoken in a voice that had the weight of a feather. Someone shouted out “We can’t hear you!” from the balcony and he upped the volume some, but I still could barely hear him though John and I were seated directly in front of him in the second row.
There was no reticence once the music began, although there was a slightly awkward introduction when I realized they would be using a synthesizer tanpura rather than the real thing. It looked like he was setting an alarm clock as he got it set up. But once he hit the violin, there were no short cuts. Subramaniam’s fingers jumped up and down the violin strings like a spider spinning a web. The head the instrument was pointed down towards the belly, rather than out from the shoulder at a roughly perpendicular angle. I don’t know whether this is a practice that makes the classical Indian scales used in the music easier to play than they would be otherwise. Or perhaps it was a gesture that took an instrument brought over by the British Raj and stood it on it’s head, literally, as a way of staking a claim of independence, or a rewriting of history.
I’ve started collecting and playing non-western non-rock instruments like Kemenche, Oud, Turkish Spike Fiddle, Ektara and Dotara that don’t have fets over the last few years. As a result, I have gained a newfound appreciation for folks who play violin, viola, cello, etc. So one of the things that struck me about L. Subramaniam was how dead on his pitch and intonation were. Harmonics and pizzicato were on frequent display, and the pace of the music revved up to fever pitch. The sense of disorientation and force generated by the accelerations and crescendos hit harder than a loud rock band did, an effect perhaps bolstered by the visual display of Subramaniam and son sitting in front of twin Roland Jazz Chorus 120’s, which they hooked up to the pickups attached to their instruments. The father’s tone was warmer, noticeably so. John and I discussed after the show whether this was due to technique or how the instruments were mic’d up – if memory serves, I think we noticed that the father’s violin had a mic on it as well the pickup, which Ambi did not.
I’m rarely floored by technique or playing at shows, but my jaw literally dropped not one or twice but six times over the course of this one. I’ve listened to some of his recordings and picked up one album called “On Record,” but have not yet found anything that matched the beauty of the live performance. Subramaniam does a lot of fusion-y type things and soundtracks and such, which haven’t sounded as interesting to me. But if you get a chance to see him perform a program like this one that is more in the Indian classical vein, don’t miss it.