Naresh Sohal’s ‘The Cosmic Dance’
(Prom 27, Royal Albert Hall, 2nd August. Review by Sameer Khan)
The Royal Albert Hall was almost full for Prom 27, performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian.The opening item was the premiere of a newly commissioned work for the Proms by the Punjabi-born British composer, Naresh Sohal (born 1939). Sohal’s Scottish connection is significant: a formative decade of his career, during which he had a major work performed by the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta, and started composing for television, was spent living in Scotland.
‘The Cosmic Dance’, a symphonic work in seven movements, refers to several different theories of creation. In the words of the composer, it is his ‘own musical account of the phenomenon of the creation’ influenced by theories and philosophies derived from diverse sources including the hymns of the Rig Veda and the Bang Bang theory. An ambition like this brings to mind parallels with works such as Holst’s ‘The Planets’ or Haydn’s ‘The Creation’, but in ‘The Cosmic Dance’ Sohal proffers a series of musical vignettes that take their inspiration from both the spiritual and scientific worlds.
The first few moments of the first movement, ‘Unmanifest’, start unexpectedly with silence, reflecting the words of the rig veda: “There was neither non-existence then, there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond..” The primordial sounds of the Universe are then gently awakened by tremolos on different instruments, along with a haunting solo on the alto saxophone. This develops into a crescendo of sound only to disappear startlingly into silence once more. The end of the first movement glides seamlessly into the second, ‘Big Bang and Aftermath’. Here the Universe is depicted in a state of constant change.
The third movement, ‘Galaxies Disperse’, representing the emergence and then divergence of two different galaxies was represented by a medley of sound effects and syncopated rhythm patterns created by the percussion section, and there was an interesting collage of multiple time signatures, including 7/8 (a common metre in the Indian Classical Music Tradition).
The fourth movement, ‘Milky Way’, calls to mind the composer’s own childhood. The quality of which reminded me of a Punjabi lohri or lullaby. The subtle use of portamento in the strings, for example, seemed to bring out a quality which seemed somehow aesthetically Indian in the piece. In the final three movements the use of low strings and high brass in ‘Sun’, the muted strings and woodwind of ‘Moon’ and the frugal instrumentation of strings and piano in ‘Earth’ conjured up a unique vision of the three heavenly bodies that most dominate the human sphere. The last movement ends with the theme from ‘Unmanifest’ implying that the creation will continue to fold and unfold in a cycle that is beyond our understanding.
The rest of the evening brought two mainstays of the Russian musical canon: Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3, with soloist Nikolai Lugansky, and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Lugansky’s beautifully measured Adagio movement was both deeply moving and flawless. The Tchaikovsky was an impassioned and idiomatic performance, in which the brass were sometimes over-dominant.
London will hear another significant Naresh Sohal premiere at his birthday concert later this year: ‘A Milestone, on October 28th at St. John’s Smith Square, will include his concerto for viola and orchestra, performed by the Beethoven Orchestra and the work’s dedicatee, the celebrated Israeli violist, Rivka Golani.