New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) presented a very exotic program during the weekend including April 5 through 7. The Sarod and Scheherazade program brought us brilliant music, with the cultures of the East meeting those of the West in a very interesting way. And for those who had never heard of the sarod, this instrument was truly a revelation.
Amjad Ali Khan is a giant in the world of sarod. He is a Grand Master, and it is no surprise since it is highly likely that one of his ancestors invented the instrument. His sons Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash joined him, along with their friend Amit Kavthekar on table, as they gave us something that I daresay 99.9% of the audience had never heard before–a Sarod Concerto, whose name “Samaagam” means “flowing together” in Sanskrit. And what Amjad has writ is indeed a flowing together, as he has written a Western-style concerto, with a concertante grouping of the principal strings of NJSO, for Western music, through an Eastern filter. The sounds were so exotic to our ears, to hear an instrument that may contain up to 19 strings! Amaan’s solo has mandolin-esque sections, which make an argument, or a query to go on walkabout with Amit’s tabla.
Introducing us to this amazing group of soloists, Music Director Xian Zhang asked how one plays 19 strings with only five fingers. Amjad explained the sympathetic vibration of some of the strings that make the gorgeous sound of the sarod and it was pure delight watching how father and sons took cues from one another, and many times there were smiles of deep anticipation, as the three musicians knew what was coming and thrilled to one another’s virtuosity. Amit’s tabla provided the grounding and the beat with the characteristic thrum that you feel somewhere near your heart. There was something that opened in my psyche as the sarod and the orchestra engaged in its conversation. The sonorous journey through ancient places, in our combined consciousness with our familiar friends on NJSO strings, led by Eric Wyrick, became the gift Amjad presented us, a bouquet of ragas in his own words—of shanti and hopefully ayuddha as well. Samaagam unites us all.
The second act of the concert was NJSO family favorite, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” This is a piece that I have enjoyed in a variety of different recordings. Hearing this work live, with the solos in the experienced genius hands of Wyrick, the voice of Scheherazade in the violin is achingly beautiful. The story of a wife of a Sultan who preserved her life by engaging her husband with stories every evening is a classic. When we add the orchestral voices–the Sultan in brass with Scheherazade in the violin, there is dazzling writing for oboe, flute, cello, every instrument in the orchestra. Wyrick’s solos paint a picture of the winsome Sultana, showing us that we post-moderns did not invent the concept of stories. And if you are very sharp, you can even hear the figure that will become part of “Flight of the Bumblebee,” perhaps the most famous portion of the opera “The Tale of Tsar Sultan,” which was written some eleven years after “Scheherazade.” The sublime writing combined with the modality of the music, the Arabesque curly-cue ornamentation and the majesty of the music bring the East to us from a Western pen, completing the circumnavigation begun in Act One. Harp flourishes and graceful sound round out this pendulum swing from India and Russia, with love.
Hungry for more? There is still time to get tickets for the remainder of the season! Visit to get your tickets now at www.njsymphony.or