Music by the Mayers

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JOHN MAYER: Violin Concerto No. 2, “Sarangi ka Sangit.”* Concerto for the Instruments of an Orchestra. JONATHAN MAYER: Sitar Concerto No. 2.+ Pranham+ / *Sasha Rozhdestvensky, vln; +Jonathan Mayer, sitar; BBC National Orch. of Wales; Debashish Chaudhuri, cond / First Hand Records FHR88

How wonderful to have more music by Indian-British composer John Mayer, who way back in the early 1970s created a fusion between Western and Eastern forms—particularly, in this case, new music never before recorded commercially. And how interesting to have music by his son Jonathan, a master sitar player.

Immediately, from the first notes of the Violin Concerto No. 2, the ear is struck by strange sounds—not merely Eastern, but microtonal in character—as the violin plays a sort of free fantasia over the odd chords. This is the only piece on this album for which there is a prior recording, but a live performance and not a studio taping. Mayer was a master of form, so much so that by the time of this concerto (1978) he was easily able to fuse the two styles of music seamlessly. Interestingly, this concerto is in five movements, of which the third is a “Raga (Cadenza senza misura)” which was quite extraordinary for its time, but interestingly, this first movement is more than eleven minutes long while the entire rest of the concerto totals only about 15 minutes. One might almost say that the first movement creates a sort of dream state in the listener, despite the increase in tempo around the 5:45 mark.

The six-minute Raga is preceded by a two-minute “Ragatal,” taken at a fast pace in a very irregular meter with odd percussion sounds behind the soloist. In the midst of the “Raga – Cadenza” the music suddenly stops and we hear a development of the melodic line played by the French horns, with a sitar joining them in the background. The fourth movement, titled “Prashna – Uttar” continues in the same slow, moody vein as the one preceding, but here Mayer brings in the flutes and some unusual timbral blends using the trumpets in their mid-range. The recorded balance, however, is somewhat thin and shrill, which slightly distorts the upper harmonics one hears from both the soloist and the higher orchestral instruments. In the brief (1:37) final movement, Mayer suddenly moves to a very fast tempo and a regular 4/4 meter, but with edgy figures that permeate both the soloist and orchestra.

His son Jonathan’s Raga Concerto also fuses Eastern and Western elements, but due to the nature of the solo instrument and the kind of modes and scales it can play it leans a bit more towards the former than the latter. The first movement, in fact, is based on the Marwa, Puria and Sohini ragas, all of which, the booklet informs us, share the same material. Like his father’s Violin Concerto, Jonathan’s Sitar Concerto is as much concerned with setting moods as with development of musical material. Overall, however, I felt that Jonathan’s sitar concerto often stayed too much in one chord, despite its clever and varied development—except in the last movement, where things become very complex very quickly. It ends on an unresolved chord.

John Mayer’s Concerto for the Instruments of an Orchestra also begins slowly and again introduces Eastern ideas in a Western orchestra. Suspense is built up by the use of suspended chords with a few faster figures played above them by various instruments; at the 3:10 mark, a regular rhythm is established and Mayer begins introducing various themes, played first by high winds as Indian rhythm comes in a little later and the piece begins to move to its unusual beat. This is a very clever and engaging piece, establishing and maintaining a happy mood as it wends its way along. In the second part of the first movement, the tempo slows a bit and we get what I can only describe as a slow caravan beat as more and more instruments come and go, playing against one another in an intriguing fashion. In the third section, the tempo increases yet again, and here it is the brass section that has a field day playing against the odd harmonic configurations and quirky but steady rhythm.

In the relatively brief second movement (part V), Mayer gets into some really strange blends; This is more of a straight orchestral movement than a sinfonia concert ante. Things pick up again in the third-movement scherzo, where a couple of violins play against one another as the winds interject their own little ideas. The last movement begins with slow but edgy music, but in the second half things become energetic and quite jolly.

We end with Jonathan Mayer’s Pranham for sitar, table (played by Shahbaz Hussain) and orchestra. Here, in this more concentrated piece, Mayer’s music ideas are more concise. As the orchestra comes in behind them, he employs some interesting timbral blends including the use of a tuba in the brass section. The tempo picks up and a jolly time is had by all.

This is a fascinating and mind-expanding disc, clearly one of the most interesting of the year so far.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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