Ravi Shankar, still a leading light in Indian music and a figure of incalculable influence on almost any genre you can name, has always been one to bust through physical boundaries, whether taking his ancient musical traditions to the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 or a wildly designed 21st century concert hall in 2006. And whether trading licks with his daughter Anoushka on their sitars, or with Anoushka leading an 11-member Indian ensemble in the first half of the evening, Shankar, his music, and persona transcended the futuristic surroundings, levitating them into his tradition.
Shankar, 86, seems ageless, performing for about an hour-and-a-half with a vitality that increased as the evening unfolded. He remains the indefatigable teacher and ambassador to the West, giving a verbal road map before each of the two classical ragas, “Maru Behad” and “Rangeela Pilu.”
Most importantly, Shankar remains a fountain of musical ideas — coming up with astonishing flights of inspiration throughout the night, taking chances as he veered away from the rhythm not unlike a jazz player — and he still has the dexterity to pull them off. At first, the amplified (but not too loud) sound of the sitar was a bit blurred but soon, the definition of each note became crisper.
This side-by-side hearing of Ravi and his direct heir Anoushka was most enlightening. Their styles are different, with Anoushka perhaps a bit bolder in touch, while Ravi remains unrivaled in his command of the microtones and string-bending nuances that give Indian music its sadness and life-affirming joy — sometimes both at once. They responded to each other with ease, humor and tenderness, caroming off Tanmoy Bose’s expert tabla work.
Anoushka’s ensemble ranged farther afield in the Shankar family repertoire, reaching back to 1974’s “Vandana” – a brief, highly syncopated vocal piece from one of Ravi’s multi-styled albums for George Harrison’s Dark Horse label — and a haunting extended workout on one of Ravi’s favorites, “Sandya Raga,” from 1987.
The solos on the latter were full of surprises for those with active imaginations; Hari Sivanesan’s workout on the fretted veena nearly seemed to veer into an American country music groove. And there was a new, joyous composition with a soaring sitar/shahnai-led melody and romping coda, “Viraha Milan.”