West and East blend in N.J. Symphony Orchestra’s debut performance of ‘Samaagam’

Amjad Ali Khan
New Jersey Star-Ledger

Rudyard Kipling famously wrote, “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” Well, Xian Zhang (no stranger to east or west) clearly feels otherwise and this weekend here in the Garden State she aimed to prove Kipling wrong.

The occasion? The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s first performance of Amjad Ali Khan’s “Samaagam,” a 2008 concerto written to be played by western and eastern instruments. Khan was present for the premiere Friday night at NJPAC, along with two of his sons; all three of them playing the sarod, a plucked string instrument considered to be a cousin of the sitar.

They started the performance in earnest with a brief folk song (joined by tabla player Amit Kavthekar) then Zhang took the podium and led her band along with the four soloists through "Samaagam."

The piece opens with a big, uplifting string passage for orchestra, then each of the sarod soloists had a brief, introductory solo. Given that the three Khans come from a distinguished musical family (that claims to have invented the sarod generations ago) it was not surprising that their playing was authoritative. Always virtuosic, but never flashy.

The title, “Samaagam,” means confluence, which Khan said in remarks before the concert connotes “the coming together of east and west.” There are indeed moments in “Samaagam” where this is felt. They recall Copland's “Rodeo” with the ease with which simple folk melodies can take on new richness when orchestrated for symphonic forces.

Kahn’s writing for western music is as fluid as his composition for the sarod: thoughtful, melodic and unforced. Indeed one of the passages that was most poetic was simply for two violins and flute.
Read the full review here