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Sundaram, Senders plays classical music with a twist

The Sublime Stimulant
New Ensemble Music.
Original chamber compositions
by Warren Senders.
First Congregational Church.
Dec. 3.

By Ann Ames
Arts Editor

It is unfortunate that the word "fusion" and the phrase "East meets West" have become cliches for describing any music with the barest hint of cross-cultural flavor. There is no other way to describe Warren Senders' music than as a synthesis of Indian and Western traditions, yet to do so in common terms seems a compromise of the music's integrity. This is no pretentious attempt at following the popular multicultural trend. This is real, despite all the efforts of the Senders concert experience to encourage disbelief in the validity of his musical credentials.

Friday's performance took place in a small auditorium in the First Congregational Church outside Harvard Square. With a fat Christmas tree on the tiny stage and a table of cider and cookies at the side of the room, the setting seemed more appropriate for an elementary school play than for an exhibition of serious chamber music. Before the program began, Senders came out onto the floor of the auditorium to make a joke about the typical tardiness of musicians and assure the audience that they would nevertheless be finished playing in time for the new year.

Every time he spoke it was with this same familiar, frenetic, vivacious style. Had he stated that he was a comedian and the billing of this show as a musical event was merely a ruse to lure people into attendance, it would not have been much of a surprise. But when he and his wife, Vijaya Sundaram, began the first piece, Alap in Raga Bageshri, the veil of jocularity lifted to reveal true sensitivity and devotion to this art form.

The lyrical melody of the alap, a traditional introduction to performances of Hindustani music, slipped in gentle contrabass notes over a tamboura's drone to create a musical open space of relaxation and introspection. It wiped the mind's slate clean in preparation for an evening of education, as well as entertainment.

Listening with a novice's ear to Indian music played on Western instruments forced an attentiveness that more common types of music don't inspire. The juxtaposition of familiar timbres and foreign tonalities is truly a shock to the ear, but one that makes itself evident only in retrospect. Each musical event passes into the next with intoxicating ease. Only afterward does it occur to the listener-in-training that in Vest Pocket Mazes, for example, he has just heard two violins accompanying each other's melodic lines with a drone or ostinato figure. And this piece introduced a stunning device that was to return often throughout the evening: The instruments wove in and out of sweet unisons that clarified and united all other notes of the music.

A surprise of a different kind was the inclusion of trombone in two of the evening's works. In The Web of Departure, a modified string quartet of two violins, cello, and contrabass played minimalist accompaniment to a trombone soloist, who seemed perfectly at home in the rhythms of his Indian melodies. It offered the heaviest moment of the concert in an ominous trombone cadenza, the first time that the subtle and pervasive serenity of Senders' music was broken. But in comical contrast a pizzicato line in the violins and cello lifted the mood gently from its depths and the trombone was soothed to gentle melody.

Yes, No, Maybe?, a trombone duet, offered still more surprises. Beginning in the style of a Gabrieli brass choir, it became alternately a suitable accompaniment to a circus act and a wailing blues. As Senders' "response to the felicitous combination of profundity and humor intrinsic to the sound of the trombone," this piece showcased the talents of its performers, Bob Pilkington and Jim Messbauer, for whom it was written, without becoming a mere forum for virtuosic strutting. It remained, through all the melodic antics, a work of art.

Each of the six other pieces on the program added another dimension to Senders' unique musical personality. A three-movement trio for flute, cello, and piano entitled Native Places expressed his feeling that "the only real native place that I have -- that any musician has -- is music." It incorporated a variety of Indian and Western devices, including several beautiful passages in which the cello became a faint mahogany echo of the piano.

To close the program, Senders sat on the edge of the stage with his guitar and, with the warmth and humor he had shown all night, sang a simple song. Offered as a personal confession and documentary of his musical travels, he sang: "Although it doesn't pay too well I really think my life is swell//And frankly I'm a truly happy man."

Unfortunately, this was the last time Senders and Sundaram will be heard performing in America until 1995. They will spend the next year in India, studying 9-12 hours a day in rigorous Hindustani tradition. But mark your calendars now for their return; such serene stimulation is worth the wait.