Asia TOPA, the Triennial of Performing Arts, has drawn some remarkable artists to Melbourne for its inaugural year, but few with the star power of movie soundtrack composer A.R. Rahman. Best known in the west for his score for Slumdog Millionaire and its iconic theme song Jai Ho, in India A.R. Rahman is something of a living legend. Rahman has composed some of the most beloved soundtracks in recent Indian cinematic history, employing a sophisticated blend of western and Indian musical traditions.
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s tribute concert to him, playing to an effusive audience in the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, was a wonderful celebration of his music. From Roja, Rahman’s first score, to Slumdog Millionaire, his most renowned, it showcased the incredible variety of his work. A large screen behind the orchestra played visual homages to the films the pieces were written for, just enough to convey the style and feel of each movie, and it was an astounding range, from bloody historical action films (Mangal Pandey: The Rising) to Bollywood sci fi (Robot), from animated fantasy (Kochadaiyaan) to sporting comedy (Lagaan), from Iranian religious epic (The Messenger of God) to introspective American drama (127 Hours). Rahman has even composed for a stage adaptation of Lord of the Rings. Despite this sounding like a perhaps questionable premise for a stage musical, the song from it, Lothlorien, with stella vocals from Opera Australia soprano Julie Lea Goodwin, was a piece of rare beauty.
Rahman’s sensitivity to cultural nuances and emotional tone shone through. The violins in the soundtrack for Warriors of Heaven and Earth seemed to mimic the tonal quality of Chinese strings. Overtones of medieval Church music were artfully incorporated in the ominous score to Elizabeth: The Golden Age. The theme from coming-home film Swades got just the right touch of nostalgia with its jaunty accordion. Whatever the genre, the pieces demonstrated Rahman's ability to both capture and enhance its mood, as well as to make music which transcends it.
Rahman himself showed on stage a couple of times, at one point playing a piano solo (from The Hundred Foot Journey) in a delicate and personal performance that made a contrast to the full orchestral numbers. While two appearances weren’t enough for some die-hard Rahman fans in the audience, who chanted for him between numbers, his music was there in splendour.
The orchestra were absolutely on point, flourishing under the conduction of accomplished soundtrack composer and orchestrator Matt Dunkley (Inception, Black Swan), himself a frequent collaborator with Rahman. The thrilling choruses that are often a part of Rahman’s compositions were provided by the Polyphonic Voices Choir, singing in Hindi and Tamil, and there were guest appearances by flautist S. Navin and sitar player Asad Khan, who have played on Rahman’s actual soundtrack recordings.
Naturally, Slumdog Millionaire was the finale and it was suitably magnificent, with its fast-paced sitar concerto and of course Jai Ho, featuring a tremendous performance by tenor Nicholas Jones singing Hindi lyrics in western operatic style.
For me, the emotional highlight of the night was the theme from Bombay, a film set against the backdrop of the 1992 Bombay riots. With its use of the triangle, beating like a heartbeat or a temple bell throughout the turns and swells of the orchestra, it perfectly conveyed a sense of endurance of the spirit in hard times. Soundtracks are a genre designed to trigger emotions in a very strong and immediate way, and with a master composer’s works in the hands of such a talented and well coordinated ensemble, this night was a rich and healing emotional journey.
While this was a one off experience, if the rest of the program at Asia TOPA is even half this good, the triennial promises to be off to a wonderful first year.
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and CHARINDAA, Arts Centre Melbourne presents
The Music of AR Rahman
Venue: Sidney Myer Music Bowl, VIC
Date: 16 February 2017