Age-old Indian Epic that Retains its Youth

It took Naresh Sohal a year to write ‘The Divine Song’, a thirty-seven minute long work for narrator and orchestra based on the first two chapters of the Bhagavad Gita. The work, premiered last week in Israel, was conceived of as a seventieth birthday tribute to maestro Zubin Mehta, who has commissioned Sohal several times in the past. By the time the work was performed, the composer was seventy himself, and ready for a bit of a celebration of his own.

Sohal, who likes to work on a large canvas, proposed a work for orchestra and singer. Mehta stated his preference for a narrator – a notion that turned out to be an inspired one.

Sohal then submitted the text, wondering if Mehta would really prefer something closer to his Zoroastrian origins. The text was accepted with barely a comment. Sohal, who had no idea where the work would be performed, wondered if the conductor’s busy schedule had prevented him from giving the matter close attention. In fact, Mehta had quickly spotted the text’s relevance to the situation in the Middle East and had already programmed the work for performance on their home turf by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

The tale is set on the battlefield of Kurukshetra in Northern India where two branches of the same family, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, are about to go to war over disputed territory, one branch of the family having been dispossessed by the other. Repeated attempts at negotiated settlement have failed. The parallels are obvious. As the opposing forces muster Arjuna, commander-in-chief of the Pandavas, asks his charioteer, Lord Krishna, to take him to the centre of the battlefield so that he can get a good look at the enemy. To his horror, he realises that they are all his friends and relatives.

So begins an extended discourse between Arjuna and Krishna about the nature of Self (Atman), Duty (Dharma) and Reincarnation. ‘The fact that this is set against the context of war, means that it has many contemporary resonances that we can recognise,’ says Sohal. ‘But even though Lord Krishna urges Arjuna to fight in the interests of justice, this is not a justification of war. It is a parable about duty. The primary messages are about the importance of recognising the enduring nature of the soul, no matter what the circumstances; and of making the right and honourable choice at every point in one’s daily life.’

Sohal is known for his love of orchestral colour. Here, there is no mistaking the amassing and manoeuvring of forces on the battlefield, as the sounds of warfare rip through all sections of a 100-piece orchestra that includes two tubas, two harps and a wind machine. At the same time the musical themes that identify Arjuna and Lord Krishna and that are carefully developed throughout the work are easily discerned. Lord Krishna is announced by harps and a twisting melody on the flute and Arjuna by bold, but increasingly tormented, statements on strings and brass.

The work was given three performances: Tel Aviv (30th January), Jerusalem (1st February), and Tel Aviv (3rd February).
Itay Tiran, currently one of Israel’s foremost actors and no stranger to controversy himself because of his opposition to aspects of Israel’s military and political stance, took on the entire vocal role, representing the narrator as well as the two protagonists.

‘He was an inspired choice,’ says Mehta. ‘He’s like a young Laurence Olivier.’

Tiran’s performance was skilfully nuanced, ranging from the impassioned pleading of Arjuna to the pacific aphorisms of Lord Krishna. In what would be a mammoth undertaking for any actor, he compelled the audience’s attention from beginning to end.
‘This has been a great work for me to perform,’ he says. ‘Usually, you get stuck with being the narrator, but this is a hugely dramatic work that gives me far more scope for self-expression. What’s more, I feel Naresh has served the word well: he doesn’t mutilate it or try to fit it to his own purposes.’

In fact, while Tiran is extremely skilled at phrasing speech to match the music, Sohal demonstrates an excellent sense of pace and proportion, dramatic tension and release. The text which, on this occasion was in an impressively lyrical Hebrew translation by Dori Parnes was audible throughout.

Mehta conducted with characteristic focus and impeccable attention to detail. ‘Naresh has had a great success with this work,’ he says. ‘It hangs together like a tapestry. It works absolutely as intended. And the musicians love it.’

As it turned out, the audience loved it too. A cautious first night audience, with no great appetite for contemporary music, greeted the work well. Sunday’s audience in Jerusalem made it clear that the work had given them much to think about. Some were moved by the message, others wowed by the combination of spoken voice and orchestra and others still were of the view that whole performance added up to a very special occasion. But by the time of the third concert in Tel Aviv the combo was cooking on rocket fuel and delivered a high octane experience. When the final blast sounded on the conch shell, marking the end of the piece and the start of the battle, people were at first stunned and then ecstatic.

‘A new work is a bit like a new car,’ says Sohal, ‘You’ve got to take it round the block a few times to really get to know it.’

Now that Tiran, Mehta and Sohal have hit their stride as a partnership, let’s hope there’ll be opportunities for them to take this work round more blocks for other people, worldwide, to appreciate and admire.

JS

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