Durham Cathedral are set to host Leeds-based sitarist and composer Jasdeep Singh Degun on Thursday 5 March for a performance of his new sitar concerto Arya. He will be joined by the Orchestra of Opera North with whom he is looking forward to realising a long-held ambition to bring traditional Indian music to a western symphony orchestra,which includes visiting some iconic locations from the Harry Potter films.

Arya is a Sanskrit word meaning noble, or precious – as well as being a girl’s name, which has been popularised now in the west by Arya Stark in Game of Thrones. But I came up with it before that.” Said Jasdeep

Jasdeep says he has written for small ensembles and larger Indian classical orchestras, but never for a full symphony orchestra and so finds the experience exciting as well as a steep learning curve.

He told Asian Sunday: “Working with the Orchestra of Opera North and their brilliant arranger Danny Saleeb has been a collaborative process, and it’s given me the tools to get my vision across completely.

Opera North Orchestra Huddersfield
Image: Justin Slee

“As an Indian classical musician who was born and brought up in the UK, I’m a product of my surroundings as well as my training. I think all composers are like sponges, they’ll soak up their environments. So Arya isn’t a western classical concerto, and it’s not an Indian classical piece; it’s simply the music that I want to present to the world.

“In Indian classical music we have a limited concept of harmony and there aren’t any key changes; there’s one drone that doesn’t shift for the whole concert. And ours is an oral tradition, mostly improvised: we don’t have sheets of paper in front of us. We’re trained to listen to and repeat very long phrases, to learn the intricacies of the raag (traditional Indian modes, like western scales) without any notation to help us. Indian classical musicians have very good memories: when I’m driving I’m great with directions. I only need to drive somewhere once and I can find my way back very easily!

“It’s completely the opposite with a western classical orchestra, which is trained to perform exactly what the composer has written down on the stave. And within a western concerto, harmony is a key feature of creativity.  How do you bring these two traditions into balance together without compromising either the spontaneity of the raag or the creative drive of the western orchestra?

“Danny and I have worked hard to give the ensemble what they need in terms of a clearly defined and very detailed score, whilst leaving enough room for the sitarist to feel like they’re not being constricted by a piece of paper. I’ve built in space for some improvisation, but for a sitar player there’s always a lot of scope for that anyway around the given notes. The sitar is all about the melody, these characteristic, voice-like embellishments that you get by bending the strings.

“At the beginning of the piece the sitar is introduced to the Orchestra, and we follow the instrument like a diamond, a shining light, through this new world of western music.

“The second movement is faster, and the orchestra starts to take over: it’s new territory for the sitar. Then in the third movement the two worlds come together and find common ground.

“I really dislike the word fusion. Arya isn’t about defying genres, or breaking out of the shackles of my tradition. I’ve never felt like that: Indian classical music is my first love, and that’s what I want to pass on to new audiences. I care about music and I care about people, and Arya is about coming together and playing, whilst maintaining the integrity and the intensity of both disciplines.

“Gem Arts, our partners for this concert, are old friends, and have a great history of bringing different musical traditions and audiences together in the region. Durham University has a distinguished Ethnomusicology department that’s conducted some really important research into South Asian music, so all in all I’m very excited to be performing Arya in the city. The Cathedral itself is an incredible space, and being a huge Harry Potter fan it’ll be an extra buzz to see part of Hogwarts and Professor McGonagall’s classroom.”

To complete the programme, the Orchestra of Opera North will be joined by the full force of the company’s Chorus for a series of exquisite excerpts from operas including Madama Butterfly, La traviata and The Magic Flute – making for a unique evening of sounds from east and west.

Following the performance, Jasdeep and the Orchestra will bring Arya to the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester (11 March) and the CBSO Centre, Birmingham on 19 March. Tickets for all performances can be booked at operanorth.co.uk