When the hype hits the fan
The recent downgrading of Valery Gergiev's reputation to music's equivalent of junk bond status by a prominent critic - performances of "often ...featureless mediocrity" - shows the dangers of classical music's guru fixation. In 2012 Newsweek declared that Gustavo Dudamel was "the saviour of classical music". To date the saviour from Venezuela has not been crucified by the critics; but it is now generally acknowledged that, like many celebrity musicians, he is a a mere mortal with a wooden baton and a golden wallet.
As one guru falls from favour, the commercial-musical complex of agents, media companies and embedded journalists ensures that a liberally hyped newcomer - the younger the better - is ready to take their place. The irony is that Valery Gergiev and Gustavo Dudamel and their over-hyped colleagues are all huge talents. Yes, they have doubtless aided and abetted their own elevation to exalted status. But the real blame lies with the commercially-driven guru fixation, which builds expectations that never have a chance of being met. Not only does this dangerous fixation divert attention and much needed resources away from the long tail of musicians on the wrong side of the celebrity divide, but it also triggers the boom and bust career cycle of so many celebrity musicians. This boom and bust cycle is vividly illustrated by Simon Rattle. He was acclaimed as the guru that would revitalise the Berlin Philharmonic. But despite some fine achievements, he is leaving Berlin on an equivocal note, having disappointed those who were awaiting Herbert von Karajan's second coming. Now, the very critics and London Symphony Orchestra musicians who said good riddance to Gergiev, are hailing Rattle as the new saviour of the LSO, and are even building him a concert hall. Déjà vu anyone?
Today the term guru is commonly used to identify a popular expert - eg. management guru - and the term is used in that context in the preceding paragraphs. But the true definition of a guru is a Hindu spiritual teacher. In India music is considered to be a sacred art, and the term guru is used in its correct context when a pupil refers to his music teacher as his guruji. However the common usage definition of popular expert, and the technical definition of Hindu spiritual teacher have become confused even in the case of Indian musicians, with the example of Ravi Shankar providing an informative case study.
It is beyond dispute that Pandit Shankar was a musician and spiritual teacher of the highest order. But had he stayed in India it is doubtful if his name would be known at all to Western audiences. However, he first toured outside India in 1956, went on to work with George Harrison, Philip Glass, and other celebrated Western musicians, and became known as the guru - popular expert - who brought Indian music and the sitar to the West. Which means that today, three years after his death, in many Western eyes Ravi Shankar is Indian music, and similarly, the sitar is Indian music. The Shankar problem is illustrated by the graphic above. It is a blurred screen grab from the video of the 1993 Concert for Peace in the Royal Albert Hall, London presented by the Rajiv Gandi Foundation. For me the double CD of this concert on Moment Records is one of the greatest recordings ever made. But I rejected taking the easy route and showing the CD artwork; because both the front and back artwork only show Ravi Shankar. The concert and the recording - in excellent sound incidentally - were both triumphs. But not just for Ravi Shankar: because tabla player Zakir Hussain (back to camera) and sarod player Partho Sarathy (facing camera) also gave triumphant performances. Yet it was difficult to grab even that shaky image, because the Asia TV video feed concentrates almost exclusively on Pandit Shankar; with only the occasional cutaway allowing glimpses of Zakir Hussain - who gave the performance of his life - and Partho Sarathy.
For the Concert for Peace the sarod was played by the young Partho Sarathy; however Ali Akbar Khan was the sarod player best-known for working with Ravi Shankar. The title of 'musician who first brought Indian music to the West' is fairly meaningless; but if it is to be awarded, it should go to Ali Akbar Khan. At Ravi Shankar's recommendation, Ali Akbar Khan visited America in 1955 - a year before Shankar's first visit - with tabla player Chatur Lal; they became the first Indian musicians to play on American TV, and recorded a pioneering album for Angel Records. Ali Akbar Khan was also an influential teacher; in 1956 he founded the Ali Akbar College of Music in Calcutta, this was followed in 1967 by another college of the same name in Berkeley, California (later San Rafael), and in 1985 by the Ali Akbar College of Music in Basel, Switzerland.
The Basel college was founded under the direction of Ali Akbar Khan's American pupil Ken Zuckerman, who is seen above. Born in New Jersey 1952, Ken Zuckerman is now one of the world's finest sarod players. I first saw him play in Jordi Savall's Francisco Xavier project at the Cite de la Musique, Paris in 2009, where his improvised raga on the plainchant O Gloriosa Domina with tabla player Prabhu Edouart was the highlight of the concert, and over the years Ken Zuckerman has made several appearances On An Overgrown Path.
In the West, Indian music remains inextricably linked with Ravi Shankar and the sitar. Which means, quite wrongly, that world class - and I use that description advisedly - musicians such as sarod master Ken Zuckerman remain almost unknown. I have written here before in praise of the Cambridge University Indian Classical Arts Society (CUICAS). This student run society is bringing Ken Zuckerman to Cambridge on Sunday for a recital with tabla player Sanju Sahai. The recital is being billed as a New Horizons event, in recognition of the need to broaden Western audience's appreciation of Indian music beyond its current narrow guru fixation. I have no professional connection with CUICAS, and, in view of the thrust of this post, I don't want to over-hype the concert. But CUICAS has taken a big financial gamble bringing Ken Zuckerman to Cambridge, and they need all the support they can get. Ken Zuckerman and Sanju Sahai start their concert at 5.00pm this Sunday, October 25th in Cripps Court Auditorium, Magdalene College. Tickets, which are eminently affordable at £15, can be bought from the ADC Theatre website, or by phone 01223300085. If you are in the Cambridge region I do hope to see you at the concert on Sunday.
No complimentary tickets or other benefits involved in this post. Header image credit Rex Features; Concert for Peace from YouTube video, Ken Zuckerman via InstaEvents. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.