A little over two decades ago, a young Indian musician named A. R. Rahman was faced with a choice: He could head to Boston to attend Berklee College Of Music or he could stay in his home country to score “Roja,” his first film. He picked the latter, beginning a career that, according to the Internet Movie Database, is 143 movies strong at the time this is being written (and possibly more by the time you read it).
So when the composer of films such as “Slumdog Millionaire,” “127 Hours,” and “Lagaan” accepted his honorary Berklee doctorate Friday in the midst of a sold-out concert in his honor at Symphony Hall, he noted that he felt he was coming full circle.
He also noted some apprehension at the idea of the event itself, saying, “Whenever I see my songs performed, I'm like, ‘Oh, no.’ But Rahman had nothing but praise for the "amazing band" of student musicians hailing from locales as far-flung as India and Hong Kong and as close as Arlington. With pianist Annette Philip leading them, the Berklee Indian Ensemble easily traversed the unsurprisingly cinematic range of the compositions, from the slow-motion drone and yawing strings of “Bombay Theme” to the spirited percussion and chant of “Chaiyya Chaiyya.”
The orchestra got brief assists from guitarist Prasanna, who appeared for two songs, and 18-year-old bassist Mohini Dey, who stayed for one. Dey’s dense, prog-style playing on “Thee Thee/Malargale” ranged from a nearly sitar-like attack early on to a dizzying slap-and-pop section later; by contrast, Prasanna's solo in the same song was economical in its judicious choices of moments taken.
Bridging the gap between musicianship and pageantry was a choir that also broke out into dance numbers from time to time. And a group of additional dancers flooded the aisles during “Epic Medley,” their joyous grins shining out even in the dark hall.
But it was all in service of Rahman's music, which typically soared. With its high, broken piano chords, “Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa” was gorgeous and ultimately soothing, traveling through unsettling territory to arrive there. And the lovely “Kun Faya Kun," fueled by a drone from a hand-pumped harmonium, was serene but with a clear heartbeat.
For the most part, Rahman himself wasn't involved in the performance, adding only synthesizer to the opening “Bombay Theme” and joining the chorus at the end of the sweeping closer “Vande Mataram.” Perhaps he just wanted to listen.