Nearly 50 years after her famous father and guru, Ravi Shankar, first played Orchestra Hall as a soloist in October 1967, sitar virtuoso Anoushka Shankar returns to the venue for her own solo debut.
As befitting a performance that followed that year’s “Summer of Love,” Chicago Tribune critic Thomas Willis wrote in his rave review of the elder Shankar’s concert: “Now the incense burns on the stage of Orchestra Hall. … The audience wears everything from mini-miniskirts to leather boots, sheepskin coats and hunting jackets, and hair at least as long as Joan Baez’s. There are flowers behind ears and bouquets on the red carpet before the guru’s sock-clad feet.”
The atmosphere will be decidedly different at Anoushka Shankar’s concert on March 25, under the auspices of Symphony Center Presents, and she performs in bare feet. The instrument, the sitar, though, remains virtually unchanged, as do the deeply rooted classical traditions she learned from her musically demanding but otherwise indulgent mentor.
“I’ve got really good memories of my dad doing really funny things while playing at Symphony Center, and the audience just cackling along with him,” said Shankar of her father, who died in 2012. She began playing with him there and elsewhere as a teenager. “So it wasn’t by any means constrained.”
Likewise, as ever, she’ll attempt to put her own Symphony Center audience at ease — which can sometimes be difficult in such an august space.
“The big concert halls and symphony centers around the world have a certain type of vibration or electricity or drama to them that can be quite exciting for a performer,” she said. “There’s a gravitas that comes from the classical music world that lends itself really well to the Indian classical music.”
She is fond of small venues as well, but “there is something about the larger concert halls that can create a kind of drama and scale for the music to really rest in and grow in, which is really beautiful.”
In performing selections her 2015 album, “Home,” she will use the traditional Indian raga as a sort of melodic infrastructure inside which often dazzling improvisation can — and in her case, does — flourish. “And so it’s a beautiful juxtaposition in our music of being very ancient but also played very much within the current moment,” she said.
While playing ragas is creatively liberating, it is also mentally taxing; improvising well within the form requires uncommonly deep focus.
“There’s a real depth of connection that needs to be there, and as someone who does many other things as well, that can be the challenge for me,” she said. “Because when I come back, I almost always have to re-immerse again. To some extent, some of it’s always there. It’s kind of my first language. But I also really have to give myself over to it again quite deeply in order to play from that place.”
In January, meticulous preparation was paramount when Shankar and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by her longtime friend and collaborator Zubin Mehta, performed the West Coast debut of her father’s Sitar Concerto No. 2. (Dubbed “Raga Mala” or “Garland of Ragas,” it had its world premiere in 1981, a few months before Anoushka was born.) Performing it, however, didn’t require “that same level of absolute dissolve that I picture when I need to be able to carry an entire evening’s worth of music without a page,” as she’ll do at Symphony Center.
“It’s about being able to generate the music from a sense of connection,” she added. “When it’s working, it’s incredibly powerful. And when it’s not working…”
Her voice trailed off in laughter.
Along with his music and legacy, Ravi Shankar’s sense of humor is alive and well.
Mike Thomas is a Chicago-based journalist and novelist.