Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

The Mumbai symphony

WHEN the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) began playing the fourth movement of Gustav Mahler’s ‘Symphony 5’ on Tuesday evening, there was feather-drop silence. The Adagietto, after all, is one of the Austrian composer’s most recognised pieces of music, enticing listeners with its ‘sehr langsam’ (very slow) pace and romantic brilliance.

Conducted by Christoph Poppen of Germany, the Mahler masterpiece was the highlight of the second day of this year’s September season of SOI.  From the solitary trumpet opening to the energetic and epic finale, the five-movement ‘Symphony 5’ was played to perfection, gaining a standing ovation and nearly 10 minutes of applause. The evening’s other pieces ― the prelude to Richard Wagner’s opera ‘Lohengrin’ and Richard Strauss’ tone poem ‘Death and Transfiguration’ ― set the perfect pace for a wonderful evening.

The concert is part of the SOI’s 13th season. Beginning with Poppen conducting a Beethoven special that included the ‘Violin Concerto’ and the ‘Pastoral Symphony 6’, it will conclude this Sunday with operatic favourites composed by Wagner, Franz von Suppe, Giaochino Rossini, Johann Strauss Jr, Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini and others, in a session conducted by Zane Dalal.

Obviously, the city’s small but devoted number of western classical followers is thrilled. Back in February, they had witnessed two operas ― Pietro Mascagni’s ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s ‘I Pagliacci’ ― and Carl Orff’s scenic cantata ‘Carmina Burana’. So this time, there was some variety.

For the past six years, Mumbai has been looking forward to the SOI’s February and September seasons. Though there are many one-off concerts and festivals through the year, most of them feature smaller chamber orchestras or even solo players, duos, trios and quartets. Festivals like Sangat Chamber Music Festival and Arties Festival, featuring young musicians, have earned their own place in the city’s music calendar.

For more popular pieces like symphonies and concertos, which require larger and more varied orchestras, the SOI concerts have provided an ideal platform. Much credit would go to Khushroo Suntook, chairman of the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Marat Bisangaliev, the orchestra’s musical director, and Zane Dalal, conductor in residence, for spearheading this effort.

Over the years, Mumbai has seen many large orchestras like the Israel, Vienna and Munich Philharmonic, thanks mainly to the efforts of conductor Zubin Mehta. Ensembles like the Bombay Chamber Orchestra, Stop-Gaps Cultural Academy and Paranjoti Choir have played a great role in the city’s musical landscape, There was also this huge extravaganza organised by the Mehli Mehta Foundation in 2008, featuring greats like pianist Daniel Barenboim, tenor Placido Domingo and violinist Pinchas Zukerman.

With the SOI concerts, the Mumbai audience is at least guaranteed of three-day events twice a year. During the past six years, the orchestra and NCPA have done a commendable job in getting high-quality musicians and using a good mix of programming. Though there have been no ‘superstars’ barring composer-conductor Karl Jenkins in 2009, conductors like Adrian Leaper, Alexander Annisimov, Evgeny Bushkov, Johannes Wildner, Dalal and now Poppen have led some spectacular recitals.

On the programme front, there has been a good mix of the popular and rare. We’ve seen Beethoven’s ‘Choral Symphony 9’, Maurice Ravel’s charming ‘Bolero’, Igor Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherzade’ and Mahler’s ‘Symphony 5’, and we’ve also heard composers like Ernest Chausson, Isaac Albeniz and Henryk Wieniawski, who are not too well-known in India.

Given this, a few challenges remain. One, though SOI stands for Symphony Orchestra of India, only 17 of the 80 musicians are Indian. The effort should be to increase that considerably.

Secondly, though a price range of Rs 800-2,000 per show may be justified considering the scale of the concerts and number of musicians, there is nothing like a season pass for those wanting to attend all three days. If a little concession is given on such season passes, more people may want to attend the entire festival, instead of going on only one or two days.

Thirdly, now that the seasons have been well-established in Mumbai, it’s just the right time to take the concerts to other cities, to help widen the exposure of western classical music there.

Finally comes the question of audience profile. In Mumbai, a large section of attendees comprises people from the Parsi and Christian communities, besides diplomats and musicians. Though there have been various efforts like workshops and newspaper advertisements, the following for western classical remains largely limited to a few sections. Of course, that’s the case with many other genres too.

Keeping this in mind, the programming for the next season in February 2013 seems like a smart move. The opening day will have a Beethoven special yet again (obviously, Indian crowds relate to him and Mozart most), followed by compositions of Leonard Bernstein, Johannes Brahms and Antonin Dvorak on the second day.

The final day begins with Camille Saint-Saens’ ‘Violin Concerto 3’ and
Tchaikovsky’s ‘Symphony 5’ (whose second movement inspired John Denver’s ‘Annie’s Song’). But after the break, there is a triple concerto called ‘The Melody of Rhythm’, featuring banjo player Bela Fleck, bassist Edgar Meyer and tabla wizard Zakir Hussain.

Now that’s not western classical music, the purists will scoff. Sell-out, they may scream. But the good thing is that it will surely bring in some diverse crowds, who will anyway be exposed to western classical music in the first half.

Much before that happens, of course, a lot of smaller events have been lined up. On October 15, violinist Alina Ibragimova and pianist Stephen Kovacevich will be performing at the Tata Theatre. This will be followed by the Joy of Music festival, featuring solo recitals by Ilya Rashkovskiy and Giuseppe Andaloro on piano, and Alvarro Pierri on guitar. The Sangat festival is normally scheduled in December.

Surely, Mumbai’s western classical music buffs are in for an exciting season.


Comments on: "The Mumbai symphony" (3)

  1. Chandra Sekar said:

    Its quite interesting to know that such an event is happening in India, twice a year. But looks like the events are spread over 2 weeks, which can be a challenge for people from outside looking to attend the season. It would help if its strung together over 4-5 days. Isn’t it? Not sure if there are any logistic challenges. I agree with your season ticket suggestion. That will certainly help get in a lot more people.

    • I think it’s got to do with the fact that different foreign conductors perform at each concert, and their availability is taken into consideration. Also the rehearsal time for different compositions may be much more, considering there are some 70 or 80 musicians on stage. Yes, Zubin Mehta did three shows in four days (Srinagar and Mumbai), but his programme was the same, and he was playing with the hugely experienced Bavarian State Orchestra.
      This year’s SOI is happening tomorrow and day after, followed by 26th and 30th. Wanted to go this week but will be tied up at work. May go on 30th

      • I was reading an interview of conductor Charles Dutoit, who conducted two of the programmes at the latest festival. He said with any orchestra that is new to the conductor, it takes about four or five days to rehearse till the conductor is satisfied they can perform the pieces on stage. Though the musicians would know or have played the pieces before, that much time is needed for overall perfection. This probably explains why there is such a gap between concerts – unless the conductor is totally familiar with the orchestra, which in turn is totally familiar with the compositions.

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