At the inaugural BBC Electric Proms in 2006, multi-instrumentalist composer Nitin Sawhney played a lengthy studio set at London’s Roundhouse Studio that featured guest vocalists Natacha Atlas, Reena Bhardwaj, Fink and Tina Grace. The venue’s capacity was around 90.
Tonight, the same vocalists joined Sawhney for his carte blanche Prom – and there was not a free seat in the Albert Hall. As a retrospective of Sawhney’s award-festooned music career, this Prom featured plenty of material already familiar to his fans but also offered glimpses of his newer work for theatre and video games. And unlike his Electric Proms set, this event never outstayed its welcome.
With a 60-piece ensemble comprised of a horn section, strings, Ashwin Srinivasan’s haunting bansuri and several percussionists, as well as the array of vocalists, Sawhney’s scope to orchestrate and arrange for the space was that much greater. Tucked behind a grand piano and celesta stage right, Sawhney switched between these and acoustic guitar for the bulk of the evening. His early love of flamenco style dominated his guitar playing still, while his piano displayed his early taste for the opulence of Debussy and Chopin in his compositions.
The evening opened to the Prophesy track Sunset, a piece Sawhney’s programme notes refer to as “created in dedication to the fight against oppression in South Africa”, one of many weighty world themes Sawhney has grappled with in his career to date.
Not content with dealing in such thoughts through music, Sawhney had also devised four set-piece tableaus comprised of two actors speaking and moving in unison as they addressed the audience about events they’d experienced. On balance this didn’t work and it would have been better to leave the music and its performers in charge.
Of these, statuesque Imogen Heap, replete with hand-held keyboard, was one guest vocalist not seen at the Roundhouse. The Grammy-nominated musician appeared for Bring It Home, a new piece from Sawhney’s forthcoming eighth studio album London Undersound, and owned the stage.
She was in grand company, of course. Reena Bhardwaj’s wonderfully clear, achingly romantic tones were employed on the electronica-meets-orchestra standard Nadia, but it was on the post-interval The Boatman that her lilting, caressing tones were most memorable.
Tina Grace‘s Spanish-language Noches en vela, parts 1 and 2 split between the Prom’s two halves, proved to be unexpected highlights. This willowy vocalist and long-time Sawhney collaborator more usually whispers, chanteuse-like, over ambient songs like the first half’s Letting Go – pretty, wispy affairs. Here, she is given free rein to demonstrate her full range of vocal skills and, while her voice could never be called powerful a la Heap’s, it is emotive, versatile and unexpectedly full of passion.
Natacha Atlas added ballerina dancing to a repertoire that centred around mysterious, Arabic-language vocals. Lucita Jules and Hazel Ferdandes added soulful tones to several numbers, alternately duetting or singing solo. But it was Atlas’s otherworldy vocalisations that would stay in the mind longest.
The first half of the Prom ended with Dead Man Walking, with all the vocalists including unobtrusive beatboxer Jason Singh joining original singer Fink to trace two parallel lives in the United States and India. But we’d still not really seen anything that needed such a huge number of orchestral musicians. With drums and amplified instruments obliterating most of the orchestra’s contributions to the Prom’s midpoint, a niggling feeling of dissatisfaction remained.
The second half, by virtue of including more new material than the first and involving the orchestra more without the band, proved to be more engaging and rewarding. Old vocal face-off Conference gave way to dramatic orchestral music composed for the video game Heavenly Sword, which finally unbridled the orchestral side of Sawhney’s ensemble. The first of the pieces saw Atlas return to the stage to squall in Arabic over the pulsating strings’ rhythm, while the second piece was devoid of vocals. Together these pieces suggest Sawhney’s newest material will take him away from his comfort zone of ’90s downtempo electronica and into a more musically technical arena.
Another new piece was introduced by Sawhney as a collaboration with sitarist Anoushka Shankar, written just a couple of weeks ago, by the name of Charukeshi’s Ruin. Based on the raga Charukeshi popularised by Anoushka’s legendary father and sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, it displayed mesmerising fingerwork and rightly elicited a rapturous round of applause.
Suddenly we’d reached the end. A scheduled encore of Prophesy sees choreographer and dancer Akram Khan shimmer and shake a garment sporting tiny, tinkling bells to the audience’s delight as Sawhney, this time back on acoustic guitar, ups the tempo again and again. The breathtaking ending, coupled with a standing ovation, capped an evening that will have brought Sawhney’s considerable talents to the ears of new fans as well as long-time aficionados. While the orchestra was ultimately underused, his use of it alongside the many other musical elements tonight merely underlined just how diverse and impressive his compositional, arranging and performance talents are.