A.R. Rahman Brings Bollywood Exuberance to Hollywood Bowl

By July 15, 2011 No Comments

There are many facets to contemporary India—a rich traditional history, a rising cyber-communications powerhouse, the expansion and overlap of Bollywood with western mainstream cinema—and all were in their top form at Sunday night’s concert at the Hollywood Bowl.

Headlining the evening was film composer/performer A.R. Rahman, of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame.  But the first half of the evening was devoted to a collection of performances grouped together as ‘Journey to India.’  This allowed audience members to get a much wider sampling of the variety of music styles found in India today.

First on the program was Rhythms of Rajasthan, a group of traditional hereditary caste musicians accompanied by a female dancer.  Though the group might appear to westerners to be something plucked from a time long gone by, the group is in fact a modern fusion all its own, combining rhythms and melodies from the Langna, Manganiar and Kalbelia communities of western India.

Following this taste of musical tradition, viewers were launched into the contemporary Indian music scene with a performance by Karsh Kale, whose club-style fusion of eastern instrumentation and electronica has inspired and defined the worldwide club phenomenon known as “Asia Massive” or “Asia Underground.”

With pulsing beats and an improvised feel, his performance injected the evening with the energy of a dance club, tempo changes intermixing with a droning sonic landscape.  Particularly noteworthy was Kale’s expert integration of tabla (Indian hand drums), his use of vocal soloists and guest violinist Lili Hayden, and the mingling of abstract visuals over the live concert feed on the Bowl’s three enormous projection screens.

Somewhat disappointingly, the screens, as well as the stage itself, seemed underlit, and despite the music’s obvious disco-tech feel, the venue gave only a halfhearted attempt in its contribution of a handful of strobe lights and the occasional flashing of pink stage lights.

The final segment of the ‘Journey to India’ was a dance performance by the Sher Foundation’s Bollywood Step Dance performers.  Beginning with a number performed entirely balanced on the narrow stage promenade, the dancers brought the exuberance of a Bollywood musical to the evening, with glittering costumes, stiltwalkers and just enough amateur uncertainty to keep the audience engaged.

The final act of the evening was devoted to A.R. Rahman’s film music, performed by the LA Philharmonic under the direction of orchestrator Matt Dunkley.  Many of the suites  were accompanied by projected clips from the various films, often with an introduction by Rahman himself explaining the premise or giving a brief background regarding the film’s place in cinematic history.

The visual aids contributed a great deal of entertainment value, particularly to those in the audience unfamiliar with Rahman’s earlier works.  However, the presence of the visuals was somewhat of a distraction from the actual live performance of the orchestra and soloists, and it was all too easy to focus on the pictures rather than the music itself.

And the music was worthy of the attention.  A.R. Rahman’s work spans an impressive swath of films, stretching from Indian to Chinese, European and to the mainstream with Danny Boyle films “Slumdog” and “127 Hours.”  He is ahead of his time in his ability to adapt to the various genres and audiences, offering accessible entry to those who wish they knew more about Bollywood films but don’t quite know where to start.

And not only is Rahman an excellent composer, he is also a fine vocalist and performer, receiving enthusiastic cheers from the bench seats when he stepped to the microphone for several songs.

The entire ensemble: the LA Phil, Rahman, the vocal group Raagapella, Asad Khan on sitar, and other vocalists, all came together for the evening finale, “Jai Ho,” the song most familiar to Americans from the flashdance sequence at the end of “Slumdog.”  It was even more stunning performed live with a full orchestra, so much so that audience members could be heard singing it as they walked back to their cars long after the concert concluded.