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Sitar legend's princess story finally set for crowning glory

Eastern influences take centre stage as, with help from Ravi Shankar’s daughter, an ambitious unfinished opera is brought to life. Christopher Morley previews an exciting double-header

Musician Ravi Shankar.

Music from the East comes to Symphony Hall on consecutive evenings this week, with an opera from India, and a concert combining Western and Chinese symphonic music.

Ravi Shankar is well-known in this country for his wonderful duetting on sitar with the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin, as well as for his influence upon the Beatles (particularly George Harrison). But he also welcomed western ideas into his Indian homeland, and at his death in 2012 Shankar was working on Sukanya, an opera exploring the music, dance and theatrical traditions of his home country India and the West.

Sukanya tells the legendary tale of a young princess who must marry a much older man. Twin demi-gods intervene to woo her away, and her suitor is transformed into a third twin, as the story goes. Who will she choose?

Unfinished at Ravi Shankar’s death, the opera was completed with the help of his daughter Anoushka, as well as the composer’s long-time collaborator David Murphy, who conducts this tour of Sukanya, which arrives at Symphony Hall on Monday (May 15), three days after its world premiere at the Curve in Leicester.

David, who conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra (who share credits for this premiere with the London Royal Opera and Leicester’s Curve), describes how the journey towards this opera began, “over a decade ago during the thousands of hours Raviji and I spent working closely together and which gained an unstoppable momentum in the last months of his life, continuing even during his time in hospital.

“Before undergoing his final surgery he outlined the roadmap he had in his mind to take the work to completion – a vision so clear and compelling as if he is closely supervising the entire creative team as we move towards the world premiere.”

And the presentation will have quite an impact, as David tells me. “It’s a semi-staged performance, in costume and with some props. It comprises soloists, chorus, the London Philharmonic, BBC Singers and dancers (the Aakash Odedra Company) plus intricate projection from 59 Productions, so with almost 100 people on stage, I know it will look and sound amazing!”

The next evening we move further to the east, with a visit from the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra, based in the Chinese city which is twinned with Birmingham, and where the CBSO performed triumphantly over the New Year just gone. The programme is a mix of western (Britten and Stravinsky) and Chinese music, and Long Yu, the orchestra’s music director since 2003, tells me how his country has come to embrace music from the west.

“Classical music is not just Western music; it is an international language, which all music and culture lovers speak. There is no need to translate.

Sitar player Anoushka Shankar.

“It is true that China has an incredibly rich cultural history, but we are also fascinated by western classical music. For me, as a musician, facilitating cultural exchange is a duty, and as a person, who plays a leading role in music, I am very happy to introduce two sides. Understanding can begin with culture. With 60-70 orchestras and 15 million children learning an instrument, we have a lot to share, and I am happy on this tour to Birmingham to share one of our finest orchestras, the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra.”

Long Yu experienced the ghastly events of Mao Tse Tung’s cultural revolution, where all intellectualism was smashed, and in which all but apparently his apparatchiks were forced to humble themselves.

“My childhood coincided with the Cultural Revolution. Classical music was forbidden to play, but musical life never stopped. Privately a lot of people listened to classical music but not in open public areas. Luckily, not all records were destroyed, and a lot of people listened to them in their homes. I remember this period very clearly, and although this was a difficult time, it makes me grateful for the culture we have in China today. I appreciate very much that my grandfather, an incredible composer and pianist, taught me music theory through Chinese music arrangements. He also inspired and guided me to become a conductor.

“As a boy, I studied percussion and piano, but conducting offered so much more. I could experience operas, concertos, and symphonic works through the scores. My generation was the first to study abroad, and after attending the Shanghai Conservatory, I studied at the Hochschule in Berlin, where a new world of training and music opened up to me. Berlin, then and now, is one of the best places to experience classical music, and I carry lifelong memories of hearing many of the great performers and repertoire there for the first time.”

We then talk about Guangzhou’s relationship with Birmingham, and the fact that its orchestra, like Birmingham’s CBSO, has a woman as its principal conductor.

“Guangzhou is a very special city. It was one of the first cities to be open to the world, even before Hong Kong, and it has a very liberal atmosphere. The city of Guangzhou was the first Chinese city in contact with the United Kingdom, making the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra’s tour in the United Kingdom very symbolic.

“Huan Jing is a very serious musician and an incredible talent. She started as my assistant and is now the resident conductor in Guangzhou. She also helped to create the Guangzhou Symphony Youth Orchestra, which is an important part of Guangzhou’s cultural life.

“We are honoured to share the connection between Guangzhou and Birmingham, and I look forward to discovering more about Birmingham.”

* Sukanya arrives at the Symphony Hall on Monday, May 15, at 7.30pm, while the following day, Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra play at the same venue (7.30pm). Ticket details on 0121 780 3333.

Upcoming Concert

* May 15: The Sinfonia of Birmingham performs a programme of Rossini, Brahms (the Violin Concerto, Mari Poll soloist, and Dvorak’s New World Symphony at Sutton Coldfield Town Hall (7.30pm, details on 0121-384 4522).

* May 17: BBC Young Musician prize-winner Martin James Bartlett launches the 2017 Birmingham International Piano Festival later this autumn with a wide-ranging programme at the Barber Institute (7.30pm, details on 0121- 414 7333)

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