Warm tones from Mandhira’s violin fill London venue

By Tara Coomaraswamy

Talented young Sri Lankan violinist Mandhira de Saram, who is based in London, will be giving a series of concerts in Colombo this month and next. She is fresh from a successful concert on June 5 at The Forge, a stylish new venue in Camden Town, London, where she performed with award-winning American pianist Gregory Martin. The two have been an established musical duo since meeting as students at Worcester College, Oxford. The concert was sponsored by the Zetland Foundation.

The evening began with Mozart's Sonata No. 21 in E Minor, K 304, written in 1778. This is his only work in the key of E minor. As with his three piano sonatas K 309-311, written in Paris at around the same time, it is noticeably sombre in tone, usually attributed to the death of his mother. It has only two movements, Allegro and Tempo di Menuetto, and is uncharacteristically sparse in texture. Mandhira sensitively captured the underlying sense of vulnerability and pathos present in this piece, even in its lighter moments, such as the major key passages in the Allegro.

Next on the programme was Brahms’

A Major Sonata No 2 op. 100, the middle in a group of three violin sonatas, all composed towards the end of his life. The A Major Sonata, created at Thun in a scenic lakeside setting, is the most lyrical of the three and is full of the lavish melodies we associate with Brahms, the archetypal Romantic composer. Through the charm and warmth of tone achieved by Mandhira’s violin, the music itself seemed redolent with the scent of flowers. Brahms’ music often reflected his own shy and introspective yet intense nature, and in this piece, too, we see typically Brahmsian complexities in terms of cross-rhythms, irregular phrase lengths and unorthodox harmonies. Mandhira wove these seamlessly into the flow of the music, subtly emphasising them without upsetting the balance of the music.

Mandhira soon to perform in Colombo

A complete contrast was provided by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s Fratres II. One of the leading contemporary composers of religious music, he has evolved a unique minimalist style referred to as "tintinnabuli” or “tintinnabulation”, because of its resemblance to ringing bells. Characterised by simple rhythms and harmonies, often using single unadorned notes, triads and open fifths, it clearly shows Pärt’s interest in early European liturgical music, especially plainsong and Gregorian chant. Fratres II (1980) consists of a set of nine chord sequences, apparently generated by a simple mathematical formula, interspersed with a repeated hypnotic percussive motif on the violin.

Out of these limited materials was created a whole sonic universe, warm, encompassing and harmonically rich. Greg Martin masterfully simulated the sonorities of a whole string quintet on the piano while Mandhira’s evocative playing conjured up an indefinable sense of timelessness, of both the primordial and the other-worldly, making it possible to understand the wide appeal of Pärt’s “mystic minimalism”.

The final item was Grieg’s Violin Sonata No 1, op. 8, said to have been created by a man who had experienced nothing but happiness. Composed at the age of 22, it is brimming with ideas, youthful enthusiasm and joy. All three movements are marked to be played Allegro or Allegretto. Written in the “pastoral key” of F Major, it is often called his “Spring Sonata” - he wrote two more at later stages of his life – and is full of freshness and a sense of wonder at nature. Perhaps it was this which resonated with the youthful performers, but certainly one felt that Mandhira and Greg particularly excelled in this piece. Mandhira’s lilting legato danced the audience through the Sicilienne rhythm of the Allegro con brio, becoming more lyrical in the second movement (Allegretto quasi andantino). This was the most Norwegian in flavour, characterised by folk rhythms and idiomatic melodies. The finale (Allegro molto vivace) had a sense of breathless excitement as it flowed from one musical idea to another, stopping briefly to develop a theme or two along the way, such as the fugal treatment of the second theme. It was a scintillating piece of music, given a bravura performance.

Yielding to enthusiastic applause from the capacity audience, Mandhira and Greg played Czardas by Monti as an encore. This was another dazzling technical tour de force, but audiences have come to expect no less from this brilliant duo, who manage to combine spontaneity with professionalism, great musical gifts with polish and expertise.

Mandhira’s musical journey

Mandhira was born in London, to Sri Lankan parents. Though she is an outstanding musician in her own right, and never mentions her antecedents, Sri Lankan audiences may be interested to know that she comes from an extremely illustrious musical background. Her father, the pianist Druvi de Saram, and her uncle, cellist Rohan de Saram, are too well known in the world of concert music to need any introduction. Mandhira’s grand uncle Earle de Fonseka, was the conductor of the Colombo Symphony Orchestra for many years.

Mandhira began the violin in Sri Lanka under the tutelage of her grandmother, the late Evangeline de Fonseka and then under Ananda Dabare. She studied the piano with Ramya de Livera Perera. After completing her primary education in Sri Lanka, Mandhira was awarded a music scholarship to the North London Collegiate School. She was also a Leverhulme Scholar at the Junior Department of the Royal Academy of Music, studying violin, piano and conducting. Her violin teachers have included Igor Petrushevsky, Howard Davis and Levon Chillingirian.

Mandhira decided to have a more rounded musical education by going to university rather than following the music college route. She received a BA and MA in music from the University of Oxford, graduating from her BA with 1st class honours and a high 1st in Performance. She was the winner of the Worcester College Arts Prize for the highest result in an arts subject. She was leader of several orchestras and chamber groups, including Ensemble Isis, which specializes in contemporary music. She also held an Oxford Philomusica Orchestra Award.

In the short space of time since leaving university, Mandhira has developed an impressively wide-ranging career. Working professionally as a freelance violinist, she appears frequently as soloist, chamber musician and orchestral violinist around the UK and abroad. Her repertoire is varied, consisting of standard classical works, as well as new and experimental repertoire involving collaborations with contemporary composers such as Gabriel Prokofiev, Nirmali Fenn, Deborah Pritchard and most recently Nickos Harizanos. She also collaborated with film/theatre composer Jessica Dannheisser and on a multimedia project and recorded the soundtracks for two short fi1ms.
Significant events include performances at the Sheldonian Theatre; the Holywell Music Rooms, Oxford; Cadogan Hall; Rosslyn Hill Chapel; Lincoln’s Inn; the Handel Room at the Foundling Museum; the Queen’s Gate Terrace Concert Series; and the Music at Wotton Series. Earlier this year she gave a series of recitals in the USA together with Greg Martin.

In addition to her solo schedule, Mandhira is also a busy ensemble musician. She is the founder member of the Ligeti Quartet, formed in 2010, a string quartet devoted to promoting 20th and 21st century music by both established and emerging composers. They have premiered several works and are interested in improvised and experimental music, musical theatre and links with other art forms.

They have received coaching from the world famous Chillingirian Quartet; this summer they are looking forward to a collaboration with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies as resident ensemble for his composition course. The Ligeti Quartet have the distinction of being one of the few groups of their generation to focus almost exclusively on contemporary music. Increasingly in demand within the UK, in 2012 they are also planning tours to China and Hong Kong.

In concert in Colombo

Mandhira has already given concerts in Sri Lanka and is looking forward to playing here again. Her first engagement is a recital at the Geoffrey Bawa Awards ceremony on July 23.

On July 30, she will play Mozart's 5th Violin Concerto with the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka and on August 14, she will perform a varied programme with pianist Eshantha Peiris at the Lionel Wendt.
From Sri Lanka, she goes on tour to India with Eshantha, to perform in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore.

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