18th June 2000

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Dramatic sounds of east, west

By Seneka Abeyratne

'Improvisations for cello, piano and Kandyan drum and other works; a concert by Rohan de Saram, Druvi de Saram, Piyasara Shilpadipathi, Shani Abeygoonaratne and Rika Abeygoonaratne at UNESCO on May 11, was dedicated to peace in Sri Lanka and the rest of the world. It was presented by the Embassy of Sri Lanka in France and the Permanent Delegation of Sri Lanka at UNESCO.

To hear five immensely gifted Sri Lankan musicians (including two brothers and two sisters) perform in one of the most romantic cities in the world was a rare treat. I timed my visit to Paris to coincide with this long-awaited event, which was a resounding success. The audience was given a cocktail of 19th and 20th century classical music, spiced with Kandyan drum beats and topped with an improvisation for cello and drums that forged an entrancing spiritual union between East and West.

Rohan and Druvi de Saram are based in England, Shani and Rika Abeygoonaratne in France and Piyasara Shilpadipathi in Sri Lanka, and I believe this was the first time they came together to perform under the same roof. It was, therefore, a unique event, of which I will have fond memories, given the setting, the choice of pieces, the range of individual styles and techniques and depth of personal expression. Beethoven, Rachmaninov, Richard Strauss, Prokofiev, Saint-Saens, Bartok, Brahms, and of course, de Saram and Shilpadipathi: what a great cocktail this was. The rhythmic drum beats and abstract patterns, the violent discordant sounds, the complex tonal idioms, the sonorous melodies, the rich chromatic harmonies, and the stark, post-modern improvisations were quite brilliant.

The two brothers Rohan and Druvi (cello and piano, respectively) played three sonatas: the first by Beethoven (Sonata in A major, Opus 69, first movement), the second by Rachmaninov (slow movement) and the third by Richard Strauss (third movement). Shani played one solo piece: Prokofiev's Sonata No. 7 (final movement). She and sister Rika then played several compositions together: Saint-Saens' "Aquarium" and "The Swan" (from Carnival of the Animals); five pieces from Bartok's Mikrokosmos - Bulgarian Dance, 'Chord and Trill Study', 'Canon', 'New Hungarian Folk Song', and 'Ostinato'; and finally 'Hungarian Dance, No. 5' by Brahms. Piyasara Shilpadipathi performed two solo drum items and also teamed up with Rohan de Saram for the cello and drum improvisation.

The programme had tremendous depth and variety and provided ample opportunities for the artistes to demonstrate their collaborative skills as well as their individual trademarks. I like to think of the concert in terms of four "tapestries", the first by the de Saram brothers, the second by Piyasara Shilpadipathi, the third by the Abeygoonaratne sisters and the fourth, by de Saram and Piyasara. All four were of equal merit and stature; yet in respect of structure, composition, tone, texture, and sound, they were fundamentally different.

The Beethoven-Rachmaninov-Strauss tapestry was a complex blend of classical and romantic themes that plumbed the depths of the emotions. In this giant tapestry one can imagine a thundering waterfall, a cascade of streams and rivulets, a counter-current, a tranquil pond, a sombrr sky with the rays of the sun illuminating the silvery clouds, and perhaps a romantic couple embracing passionately in a shady grove.

The de Saram brothers, who have played together for many years and performed all over the world, were in complete control of mood and tempo and produced some luminous moments, especially in the Strauss sonata, with its grand sweep of the imagination and brilliant coda. Druvi provided the rich tones and colours while Rohan added the fine brushstrokes and bold dashes of light. They succeeded in creating a dramatic mood and a symbolic landscape that was rich in tone and texture and had a lingering effect on the mind. I personally felt that in the second item (Rachmaninov sonata), they diverged occasionally in terms of emotional and artistic interpretation, but their performance on the whole was splendid.

Piyasara's vibrant Kandyan drum tapestry gave the concert an intriguing Asian dimension. Devils' masks, swirling torchlights, panoplied elephants, mesmeric chants, and frenetic dances and rituals - these are the archetypal images that arose from his pulsating rhythms, repetitive themes and motifs, and whiplash notes, which at times sounded like echoing rifle shots. His performance was packed with power and punch, and his technical mastery was something to be marvelled at. Piyasara, who has also performed in many parts of the world, proved that it is possible to cast a magical spell on the audience with nothing but a drum. And cast a spell he did, with his dexterous hands and extraordinary musicality.

Shani and Rika need a brief introduction as they are much younger than the other three. Shani (23) and Rika (20) are studying at the two leading conservatories in Paris - the CNSM and CNSR, respectively. They are being tutored by the best professors in France and thus belong to the musical elite. Shani has given piano recitals and concerts in several European cities and is on her way to a brilliant career with Rika, an equally good pianist, following close on her heels. Both perform regularly in Monaco, where they were born and raised, and are held in high regard by French critics.

The Prokofiev-Saint-Saens-Bartok-Brahms tapestry had great depth and sophistication and depicted fluency of style, technique, and rhythm. This was a compelling performance, and the imagery created by Shani in the Prokofiev sonata was so powerful that scenes of war, chaos, and violent conflict unfolded before my eyes while she was playing. Then the two sisters played together. Two souls blended into one and produced beautiful vistas imbued with passion and romantic zeal. Shani and Rika have a lovely silken touch and the ability to play with great precision and control. Moreover, they possess a certain inner beauty and radiance that lift them above the ordinary. I was impressed with the way they handled the five Bartok pieces (two pianos), especially the last ('Ostinato'), which demands superior technique and refined artistic temperament. The two Saint-Saens pieces (two pianos) and the Hungarian dance (four hands) were also performed with aplomb.

Rohan and Piyasara concluded the programme with a highly innovative cello and drum improvisation. It was sombre, abstract (almost to the point of being arcane), and deeply spiritual. The blending of cello and drum produced effects that closely mimicked the sounds of nature and I thought of howling winds, screeching birds, pounding surfs and of porpoises talking to one another using ultrasonic waves. All in all, an extraordinary piece of work. To conclude, the five musicians played brilliantly and did Sri Lanka proud.

World of warring words

By Alfreda de Silva

Wars have been a scourge on the earth's face since the world began.

Histories and literature both ancient and modern, record them in their gruesome blend of agony and glory, their shame and pride, carnage and renewal.

We in this country are among those who have had an inside view of war's unpredictable anatomy and diabolic sway.

Poetry on the subject of war differs not only according to the regions in which it has been waged and their geographical diversity. It varies in accordance with the weaponry of the times and the political tensions that sharpen the reasons for hostility.

There are poets who have claimed irrefutable glory for war and its victors. Others have evoked compassion for both victor and vanquished, in the light of the incredible loss of life that war generates.

A war-poem included in anthologies used as school texts in this country in the 1930s and several decades later, was Tennyson's The Charge of the Light Brigade.

A comparatively small band of British soldiers survived the famous Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in the Crimean War.

At the time there was the danger that their guns would be captured by the Russians. Some mistaken order caused the disastrous cavalry charge to be made against that part of the enemy line.

"Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why
Theirs but to do and die,
Into the Valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
............When can their glory fade ?
O the wild charge they made
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made,
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.

The Victorian poet's focus here is on the great bravery of the soldiers, the bravery that proves the validity of the war.

From Robert Browning, another eminent Victorian poet, we have Incident of the French Camp in which Napoleon, a mile or so away from the scene of battle, waits impatiently for news.

The French are storming Ratisbon and come out victorious.

A young messenger rides furiously through the ranks of the battlefront with the joyful tidings:

........... Emperor, by God's grace
We've got you ' Ratisbon......
The chief's eye flashed, but presently
Softened itself as sheathes
A film the mother-eagle's eye,
When her bruised eaglet breathes;
"You're wounded !" "Nay" the soldier's pride
Touched to the quick, he said,
"I' m killed Sire !" And his chief beside
Smiling, the boy fell dead.

Here again there is a pin-pointing of the chivalry of youth in war. The glory of the ultimate result.

Two World Wars saw a different sort of poetry being written and some of the finest examples of it are by those who actually served in them and experienced their horrors at first-hand.

Among these was Siegfried Sassoon, born in 1886, who served in France and Palestine in the First World War. He won awards for his bravery as well as his poetry. This poetry has a different feeling about war, a compassion for those who are wounded, and those who die in battle. From Death Bed we have

Light many lamps and gather round his bed,
Lend him your eyes, warm blood and will to live.
Speak to him, rouse him, you may, not save him yet
He's young he hated War.....
But Death replied: "I choose him." So he went,
And there was silence in the summer night,
Silence and safety and the veils of sleep,
Then far away, the thudding of the guns.

Sassoon sees the futility and heartbreak of war and emphasizes it in

Everyone Sang.
Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted
And beauty came like the setting sun
My heart was shaken with tears and horror
Drifted away...... O but everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the
Singing will never be done.

In this uncontrived and smooth flowing poem, the silence of death in the field where the birds sang is evident and painful.

Sassoon's close friend Wilfred Owen was born in 1893 and died in action in the First World War in 1918. He was one of its most sensitive and promising poets.

His poems, powerful and deeply felt, steer away from war's glory and draw attention to the great pity and horror of it. He deplores its dislocation of normal life. Its colossal waste.

The poems show him adapting traditional attitudes but giving a modern twist to the many facets of war. He achieves a deeply moving utterance: Anthem for Doomed youth

What passing bells for those who die as cattle.
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells.
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs
The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells
And bugles calling for them from sad shires
...........The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

The final comment on Owen's poems are his own. He had been planning a book of poetry just before he was killed.

Rough drafts of a Preface and Contents had been found among his papers. These lines are from the Preface:

This book is not about heroes.....
Nor is it about deeds, or lands or anything about glory.
Honour, might, majesty, dominion or power except War
.........My subject is War and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.......
All a poet can do today is warn.

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