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Bach and North Indian music make a fine pair

Amit Kavthekar played tabla for Ashmont Hill Chamber Group's "Bach & Ragas" program.Ashmont Hill Chamber Music

Intimacy is one of the selling points of Dorchester’s Ashmont Hill Chamber Music series. Under the dark wooden beams of Peabody Hall at the Parish of All Saints, no seat is too far away from the musicians, who perform at floor level. On top of that, the acoustics are akin to being wrapped in a warm blanket, perfect for a dreary winter afternoon. That said, the series might want to come up with an alternate seating or staging arrangement for the next time a performer plays while seated on the floor.

At Sunday afternoon’s concert, “Bach and Ragas,” few people outside the first few rows could see anything of tabla player Amit Kavthekar — never mind his hands or drums. Nevertheless, there was no missing the sound. The show began with an improvised rhythmic mosaic, as the tabla’s soft bass thuds and distinct ringing accents resounded around the small room. A young child seated in the back row got up and took a spot near the front to get a closer look, clearly wanting to see more. I was seconds away from doing the same thing when it ended.


“Bach and Ragas” itself is a flexible program centered on cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws, who pairs selections from Bach’s well-traveled suites for solo cello with music by Shirish Korde, a composer of Indian descent who chairs the music department at College of the Holy Cross, where Müller-Szeraws also teaches. This confluence of musical traditions looks interesting on paper, and sounded even better in the concert hall.

Müller-Szeraws had two Bach suites in the offing, the first (you’ve heard the Prelude from this one, even if you don’t know it) and sixth. In the first suite he was energetic but deliberate, throwing in a few surprises; a bracing injection of dry tone here, a steely accent there. The mellifluous Sarabande offset the raffish Courante, and two rowdy minuets evoked barroom more than ballroom.


The melody of Korde’s “Anusvåra,” a fantasia on the five notes of the raga “Rohini,” clambered upward to the cello’s highest peaks; eventually it began to sound more like a human voice or a bansuri (Indian bamboo flute) than the instrument it was. After intermission, echoes of “Anusvåra” shone through in the slow unfurl of the Sarabande of Bach’s sixth suite. The faster movements of this suite singed around the edges — many runs were blistering fast, as if the cellist was scared of losing the audience’s attention if he took his foot off the gas.

That kind of rush was more suited to the final two thirds of Korde’s “Lalit,” a trio for vibraphone, tabla, and cello structured after a North Indian raga performance. Jonathan Hess’s vibraphone first stood in for the standard drone as Müller-Szeraws unspooled a languid melody; from that point it was full speed ahead as Kavthekar took over the rhythm, spurring the cello and vibraphone. A punchy syncopated melody anchored the piece. Using that as a launching pad, the three blazed through spirited dialogues, relaxed for short interludes, and raced to a series of peaks in speed and intensity; there, crisp, discrete bell-like tones stacked in astonishingly agile unison with the dry, buzzing slurs of the cello. It would have been even better if I could have seen the tabla player’s hands blur.



Presented by Ashmont Hill Chamber Music. At Peabody Hall, Parish of All Saints, Feb. 9.

Zoë Madonna can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at Follow her @knitandlisten.