The keys to success

pianist

The keys to success

At 22 years of age, creative pianist Utsav Lal is blazing a musical trail of his own. Choosing to play the intricate Hindustani music on a decidedly western instrument, Lal has enthralled audiences around the world. With several albums under his belt, the first of which was released when he was just 16, his prodigious output and performances at prestigious locations have earned him a  global fan base.

His musical style has led to him being described as the ‘Raga pianist’.
Utsav Lal’s fascination for the piano and old Indian film songs started at the age of seven. He first learned to play the piano from Brian Silas. Within the first six months of his tutelage, Lal was invited to perform alongside his tutor at concerts.

He was simultaneously trained as a Western classical pianist by John Raphael at the Delhi School of Music. He moved to Ireland when he was 13 to study under concert pianist Padhraic O’Cuinneagain, securing a diploma with distinction.

His formative years, he says, “was performance oriented and did not encompass much of sight reading of music.”

“It was after I trained under Padhraic O’Cuinneagain that several doors opened up, exposing me to the world of Western classical music. This training gave me a technical grounding and also taught me a lot about the piano. It also opened me to great pieces of music from classical composers, which either consciously or subconsciously affect my improvisations in Indian music,” he adds.

Musical influences

Talking about other genres that influence his style, he says, “I also wanted to study jazz because it is a form of music that, like Indian classical music, is steeped in improvisation. While in Dublin (from 2007) I started taking evening lessons for jazz under Argentinian pianist Germann Lema, and also attended the weekly jam sessions at the Newpark School of Music. I was also awarded a world music scholarship in 2008 to attend a five-week performance programme in jazz at Berklee, which was a great learning experience. Further, some jazz musicians and I formed a quartet and performed at live music venues there. This is what probably sowed the seeds for me to pursue a bachelor’s degree in jazz, which I recently completed from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow.”

Some of the influences on his music also comes from the Dhrupad style of Hindustani music, particularly the Dagar style of Dhrupad.

His training years with Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar has helped him to “explore the nuances of Hindustani classical music from a vocal perspective.”

In addition, Hindustani classical violinist Sharat Srivastava has been his mentor, guiding him through the instrumental style of Indian classical raga renditions.

He lists Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Bhimsen Joshi, Vilayat Khan as the greats who have inspired him in different ways. He says the music of Bill Evans lured him towards jazz.
Western classical music also has a huge impact on his life. “Composer Debussy and performer Horowitz have taught me a lot about my instrument.”

Lal’s fascination for Indian classical music began when he started playing Indian film music that was based on ragas. “That first pulled me towards Hindustani music.”

On exploring Indian classical music, he says, “I was stunned by its beauty and overwhelmed by its complexity. I was drawn to the challenge of expressing raga-music on my piano.” Rather than taking the piano to the ragas, he has tried to bring the ragas close to the piano.

He says that he has “used the training in Western classical music to strengthen my mastery over the piano. My jazz studies have helped me to look at improvisation in a different light. This is why I can fuel all my learnings in my renditions to  communicate the essence of the raga in its pure form.”

Talking about his previous (four) and the upcoming albums, Lal stresses that his debut album, ‘Piano Moods of Indian Ragas’, probably has the most emotional connect.

He is also excited about his upcoming album. He says, “I just finished recording on this ground-breaking new instrument called the Fluid Piano, which is a totally acoustic grand piano that can bend strings and glide notes. This will be the debut album for the Fluid Piano and will be released in the UK by the end of the year.”

Songs of past

While talking about his performances and collaborations, he recalls “playing at the Harivallabh Sangeet Sammelan in December 2012 as one of the most amazing experiences. It’s the oldest Hindustani classical festival. All great musicians have performed there at some point. It was the first time a piano was featured at the festival.”
He also remembers performing a solo concert at the John F Kennedy Centre of the Performing Arts as “a milestone and a moment of great joy.”

Lal has collaborated with a large number of musicians. He rates his performance  with Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill as memorable. Among Indian musicians, he recalls the performance with Rakesh Chaurasia as a special collaboration.

Utsav Lal has performed with the very talented Hidayat Khan (on Sitar) during a multi-city tour that celebrated Indian independence. “Hidayatji comes from an impressive lineage of being the great Ustad Vilayat Khan’s son, and is such a great sitar maestro himself. He has worked with some of the best musicians across the world and brings so much experience and learning with him that any performer would be privileged to collaborate with him,” he adds.

The future looks great for this musician as he looks forward to a music tour in the US, an album release and collaborations across the world.

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