What if Mozart had been born in southern India?

He might have been influenced by Tyagaraja, one of the most important composers of his day in the raga system of music. Tyagaraja (1767-1847) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) were contemporaries, though musically they lived worlds apart.

Works by the Indian- and European-born composers will come together when the Midwest Melharmony Festival takes place Saturday at the Oregon Performing Arts Center. The festival concert will be a new-age meeting of Western classical and one of the world’s most ancient forms of music, featuring the creator of “melharmony,” Chitravina Ravikiran.

Performers include the Madison Bach Musicians and Ravikiran’s ta-ki-Ta Trio — which along with the globally known Indian musician includes drummer and four-time Grammy Award winner Glen Velez and vocal percussionist Loire Cotler. Guest artist Tarun Bhattacharya also will perform on the 100-string santoor.

A former child prodigy, Ravikiran, 48, pioneered melharmony with the BBC Philharmonic in 2000. The approach experiments with melding carnatic or raga Indian music — which has melody but no harmony — with Western harmony.

“Melharmony is an attempt to create a sense of harmony and texture and verticality, but with focus on the melodic roots,” Ravikiran said. “It enriches both Western and Indian classical music — because it takes into consideration the rules and aesthetics of both systems.

“In theory, melharmony can be applied to Chinese (music) or any system that uses 12 tones. It really can be taken up by any composer,” he said. “You are given a new set of rules for the game, which makes it really interesting whether you are a musician or a composer or a listener.”

Saturday’s event will be the Madison area’s second Melharmony Festival. The first took place last year at Middleton High School and drew about 400 participants and audience members, said organizer Vanith Suresh.

She expects listeners from as far away as California, Virginia and from across the Midwest at this week’s concert, she said.

“It’s going to be a rare treat — because it’s hard to get a Grammy Award-winning artist to perform in a school setting like this,” said Suresh, a vocalist who runs the Arohana School of Music out of her Middleton home.

John DeMain, music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will serve as the festival’s special guest and may say a few words at the concert, Suresh said.

The concert is a fundraiser for the Oregon High School orchestra, whose music students will have a chance to participate in workshops with visiting musicians. Ravikiran has arranged pieces for student orchestras that are grounded in his melharmony concept.

It’s something that the students relate to with surprising ease, said Leyla Sanyer, who teaches orchestra and music composition at the school.

“The world’s getting smaller — we hear that all the time. But it really is already small for a lot of the kids,” she said.

“So many of them have heard traditional Indian music, or are familiar with Bollywood and know a little bit about music from other parts of the world. Maybe the rest of us are catching up.”

Ravikiran’s vision is to take multicultural diversity to the next level of “multicultural unity,” Suresh said.

“The Wisconsin music standards require that students study music and culture as it relates to history. This is clearly a great way to do it — when you’re comparing composers” from different genres and cultures, she said.

“It opens your mind to other possibilities.”


Gayle Worland is an arts and features reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.