We made our way over to the BMICH on Sunday evening, Java and I, to watch and listen to ‘Pradeepanjalee XII’ billed as ‘a concert by virtuoso sitarist Pradeep Ratnayake and his friends’ to launch his latest album of music ‘Sithijaya’. The concert was by invitation and with ‘passes’ that were available at Torana (the producers of the show) and some other places – no tickets were sold as the producers wanted to have as full a house as possible due to the filming of the entire concert to be edited and produced as a DVD.

The BMICH is, in my view, probably the worst venue for any theatrical production – the reasons for this being too many and too tedious to get into, but that’s how I see it. Anyway, the first bummer was that the show started nearly thirty minutes late before the first piece got going. Not an auspicious beginning.

The opening piece, ‘Standing together’ combined Pradeep’s sitar with a variety of string, wind and percussive instruments and featured the voices of Kolitha Bhanu Dissanayake and Madhavi Shilpadhipathi in solo, in duet mode and with the backing of the ‘Soul Sounds’ choir directed by Soundarie David. The voices were excellent and the choir added the vocal harmonics with a distinctly ‘western’ structure that blended adequately so as not to infringe on the main. It wasn’t too bad for the opening. And it was only later that I realised that the musicians were miming to a soundtrack – oh well…

And then (speaking of infringement) Vijaya Corea strode up to the very front of the stage and proceeded to kill the show with his spiel on Pradeep’s virtuosity, his accomplishments and a bunch of other crap that could easily been included in the programme instead of boring the shit out of the audience. It beats me why this sort of nonsense is so persistently inflicted on audiences in this country. Pradeep should have known better!

Heaving a sigh of relief as VC wrapped up his monologue, I awaited the next number ‘Kuveni’. This featured Lakshman Joseph de Saram mixing a mean violin with Pradeep’s sitar as they mixed and merged with Karunaratne Bandara on getabera and Chandralal Amarakoon on tabla in what was a pretty good effort. Lakshman Joseph’s violin emitted the warmest tones and his mastery of the instrument was a pleasure to behold.

Wine-coloured moon’ was next – more fusion, with Shiraz Noor Amith doing a slick little solo on drums (and I do mean ‘little’ – as in ‘short’), Alston Joachim on electric bass and Harsha Makalande coping on piano. Nothing special – except for Shiraz’s drumming.

A pageant in July’ – meant to be an interpretation of Esala, featured Pradeep’s sitar with  Ravibandu on getabera, Jananatha Warakagoda on thamattama and Ruwan Wickramaratne on congas, djembe and latin percussion. There were also a string section with (if I remember right) cello and violins and a wind section with flute, oboe and bassoon. Not too terribly impressive, though an admirable effort.

Next up was ‘Blue skies’, a pleasant melody with a tango-ish rhythm in which the sitar, four guitars, piano (featuring Soundarie David) violins and drums by Shiraz combined. Again – it was pleasant and interesting, but didn’t blow either Java or yours truly away.

Flight’, which Pradeep used to showcase his expertise on the sitar ended the first half of the show and received rousing applause mainly due to the excellent drumming of Jananatha Warakagoda on thammattama and Ravibandu on getabera.

The interval was unusual in that the hall outside the auditorium was crammed full of food stalls hocking burgers, hotdogs, fries and I even saw some folk with plates full of rice and stuff. There was no beer, so Java and I wandered down to the car park and did our thing.

The second half of the programme began with ‘Mountains’, a subdued paean to nature which was mellow and soulful, with Pradeep’s sitar combining nicely with Hasitha Perera’s oboe,  Nalaka Perera’s bassoon and Suresh Maliyadda on electronic keyboard. Nice.

Play with me’ had the sitar combining with violins reasonably effectively whilst Harsha’s keyboard, Alston’s bass and Shiraz’s drums took over during a break in the string section’s interpretation. The whole was disappointing to me. The music itself was one dimensional and unworthy of praise. Poor Shiraz, Alston and Harsha tried valiantly to cope, but to no avail. The piece was putrid.

Spring’ featured the virtuosity of Lakshman Joseph de Saram on violin in interplay with Pradeep’s sitar and tabla by Chandralal. This was more of a traditional classical piece and succeeded where the more fusion oriented efforts had flopped. I loved the violin parts as Lakshman Joseph’s mastery and precision were spot on

Joy’ was another of those pieces that left me cold – mainly Pradeep’s sitar with tabla and ghatam accompaniment – miles to go…

Rebirth’ was a backing track with sitar, flute and atonal harmonic vocals, and served as the vehicle for dance movements by Thaji. This was the only item that didn’t feature any musicians on stage, but unfortunately the drums and other instruments in place detracted from the beauty of the controlled movements that signified interpretation of the title. This, for me, was probably the best piece in the entire effort, although as mentioned, the lack of planning and stagecraft left much of that part to be desired. Thaji, though, was a dream in slo-mo.

The show closed with ‘Wind’ – Pradeep’s sitar and more percussion – with Upula Madushanka and Chandralal Amarakoon on tablas, Nesan Thiagarajah on mridangam and morsing, Ravibandu on pakawaj and Harsha on piano. This piece was the climactic number and the music and drums built to a crescendo that left the audience exploding in applause – obviously the piece they enjoyed most of all.

There’s no doubting Pradeep’s abundant talent and expertise on his instrument, and the attempt at fusing his own take on ‘national’ music with elements of Indian classical, jazz, blues and alternative (‘world-music’ if you will) is admirable. However, there’s a long way to go before something of real quality emerges– and that’s not surprising, given the incredible variety of similar music of extremely high standards on the international scene. But if he keeps on keeping on the way he has been, there’s very good likelihood that he will succeed – and sooner than later, we hope.

Pradeep had his training in Shantiniketan and has since performed extensively here and abroad – in New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles, in Geneva and Vienna – to much acclaim. I would assume that ‘Pradeepanjalee XII’ was his twelfth performance, it was, as mentioned earlier, especially done for the purpose of filming for international distribution.

On the whole and in the end – an evening well spent.