In print: What were those ‘Italian ladies’ singing about?

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shawshank redemption

The 1994 American drama film The Shawshank Redemption is one of my favourite films, and ranks #1 among the “Top 250 list” of Internet Movie Database (IMDb). It has a great cast, an irresistible plot reminiscent at least in some respects of The Count of Monte Cristo in that a wrongly-accused protagonist is jailed for years in a prison from which escape seems quite impossible. But whereas the escape begins the story, setting off a spate of revenge in Monte Cristo, in Shawshank the whole film builds up inexorably but nevertheless surprisingly to a spectacular jail break by Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), and the most audacious settling of scores with his corrupt, unscrupulous warden.

One particularly memorable scene from the film captures the essence of the film, its message of inner freedom regardless of external circumstances.

Dufresne has been assigned to the prison library and receives a library donation of LPs (long-playing records) that includes a recording of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera buffa or comic opera ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ (The Marriage of Figaro). He plays an excerpt from it on the public address system, and is punished with two weeks of solitary confinement for his stunt.

The excerpt he plays is the Letter Duet or the Canzonetta Sull’aria for two sopranos. The music that is broadcast throughout the prison via the public address system lifts the spirits of the inmates. Dufresne’s friend Red (played magnificently by Morgan Freeman) is the narrator through the film, and describes the episode:

“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

Freeman’s lines eloquently belie the notion that one needs to ‘understand’ opera and its libretto in order to savour it and enjoy it, something that keeps many people at bay from even giving opera a chance.

But what were “those two Italian ladies” singing about? The aria is a duettino (short duet) from the third act of the opera. Countess Rosina Almaviva dictates a letter to her maid Susanna (who is bride-to-be of Figaro, valet to the Count Almaviva). The philandering Count has his eye on young Susanna, and the two women set a trap for him, to expose his infidelity.

The letter invites the Count to a rendezvous that night with Susanna, “under the pines”. The title “Sull’aria…che soave zeffiretto” translates into “On the breeze..what a gentle little zephyr (wind).” The text of the dictated letter contains just three lines, and is suggestive: “What a gentle little Zephyr; This evening will sigh; Under the pines in the little grove.” The duo conclude their aria singing “And the rest he’ll understand.” “Susanna” will of course be the Countess disguised as her, and the Count will be caught red-handed.

The letter-writing lends itself perfectly to the structure of this beautiful aria, with the Countess first dictating a line, and Susanna repeating it as she writes it down. The strings have an undulating line, where they simply ‘open out’ the chord progression as ‘arpeggios’. A simple expedient, but in the hands of Mozart, it becomes sublime. The woodwinds almost become participants in the conversation, at first giving us a foretaste of the Countess’ opening line, and then ‘answering’ in a three-way dialogue.

There is some irony in the choice of this particular aria in the film. The aria revolves around exposing duplicity and infidelity, while Dufresne is framed for a murder resulting from his own wife’s extramarital affair.

The singers in the ravishing rendition you hear in The Shawshank Redemption are Gundula Janowitz (the Countess) and Edith Mathis (Susanna), with the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin conducted by Karl Böhm, recorded in 1968 and packaged onto a 4-LP box set. It is one such set that Dufresne blows the dust off, removes the record from its sleeve, and gently places in on the turntable and the stylus right at the beginning of the aria. It lets us, the viewer, know that Andy Dufresne is a pretty discerning classical music buff. He not only chooses this recording of the opera from among all the other records donated to the library, but is able to zero in on this precise aria.

The film helped renew interest in not just the opera or this aria, but also this particular recording. The Wikipedia entries for both the sopranos, Janowitz and Mathis mention their contribution to the Shawshank Redemption soundtrack. Edith Mathis is considered a true Mozartian singer, and this is one of her notable Mozart recordings of her career. Likewise, Janowitz is highly regarded for her role as the Countess Almaviva.

And cyberspace is full of accounts of people who describe the music at this point in the film as the most beautiful they ever heard in their lives, or who it made them weep for its sheer beauty.

Nearer home, Patricia Rozario and Joanne D’Mello sang it in Goa at their last public concert.

The opera (1786) has its libretto (text) written by the great librettist Lorenzo da Ponte (1739-1838) and is based on the play by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799). Mozart loved exploring themes inspired by the spirit of the Enlightenment, reflecting the environment he was living in, where the man on the street was beginning to strike back against the institutionalised oppression of the aristocracy. The Marriage of Figaro has it all: servants who are smarter than and able to outwit their tyrannical, insolent masters. It predates the French Revolution by a mere 5 years, and Napoleon would later go on to observe that the Marriage of Figaro, both in the form of the play by Beaumarchais and Mozart’s opera, were the “Revolution in action”.

In the Beaumarchais play, the “letter episode” (tucked away in Act Four of the five-act play, which took four and a half hours when performed unedited) is over in a few sentences, perhaps under a minute. Trust the genius of Mozart to turn this little episode in the libretto into the most divine, achingly beautiful three and a half minutes of music ever written.

(An edited version of this article was published on 16 November 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

In print: Reading between the lines — and on them as well!

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To read or not to read

There is an inside joke in the music world that goes like this:

How do you stop a ‘classical’ musician from playing? Take away his sheet music.

How do you stop a jazz/folk/bluegrass/popular musician from playing? Put sheet music in front of him.

This has a strong ring of truth to it. There are of course always notable exceptions to the contrary, but generally musicians trained to play what is regarded as ‘classical’ music tend to be musically literate, often to the point of being unable to play without sheet music; whereas those who opt for other genres are less dependent on music scores, often to the point of music illiteracy.

I grew up learning music at a young age in Goa, at the St Cecilia Music School in my vaddo of São Tomé. I must have been five or six. We began with solfeggio, and only when we were considered ‘literate enough’, was an instrument pressed into our hands. I still remember the day I was called out of solfeggio class to try on a violin for size. It felt like a rite of passage, a coming of age, even though I had had a few violin lessons privately at home already.

But there was a gradual dichotomy among us; those of us who moved on to playing ‘popular’ and jazz music gradually ‘liberated’ themselves from the demands of sheet music. I remember an older boy defensively taunting us for not being able to ‘freak out’ on our instrument as he was able to, when it became obvious he couldn’t read a music score in front of him. Indeed, a music score in that respect can be seen as a ‘prison’, with its ‘bars’ and the prison bar-like appearance of the musical stave. Freedom from a musical score can allow a musician to give full rein to one’s expression. There is no compulsion to play “the same thing” over and over. But is one ever playing “the same thing” ever, even in a notated score? Each reading is necessarily subtly different, however imperceptibly. There are limitations to notation; as much as it tells us, there is much it cannot, no matter how explicit the signage and musical terminology regarding tempo and expressiveness.

There is a definite downside to this ‘freedom’ from the score, however. I have so many friends and acquaintances in Goa, who, like me, began with a solfeggio education with their mestre in their parish, and perhaps even learned to play an instrument, usually the violin, to a certain level, before being seduced by the charms of popular music or having to put music to the backburner due to academic pressure. This meant that they over time lost their ability to read music. In fact, some of them argue they never did have it, although I can clearly remember that they did. And now, despite being passionate lovers of music, and genuinely wishing to be part of a community music activity like a choir, and being able to pitch really well and in general having all the other qualities required of a choral singer, they feel terrified by a music score. There is consequently an over-reliance on MIDI files and video recordings of each individual line of a part harmony score. To be fair, one can achieve results this way as well. But the process takes much, much longer. And there is the real danger that if a line is wrongly played out in the MIDI file or video, a whole section or more could mis-learn their part.

This is really unfortunate, because with basic music literacy and sight-reading skills much new ground can be covered by a choir and exciting new frontiers can be explored. It is commonplace in England for people for different walks of life who did not know each other previously, to congregate over a weekend, and sing from scratch all of Handel’s Messiah or Mendelssohn’s Elijah oratorios. They are not professionals, but rank amateurs, and are able to do this merely because they can read a score.

The good news is that sightreading and sight-singing is easily acquired though practice, by learning to the detect patterns in the ‘shape’ and contours of the musical line, and learning to accurately measure the distance or interval from one note to the next. Over time, one will learn to recognise an interval of an octave, or a perfect fourth or fifth, wherever it may occur in the musical line. Anyone who has been able to plot a line or a curve on an x-y axis at school can learn to read music. The principles are the same. A music score is essentially a graph of music pitch (how high or low a note is) on the y-axis, against time on the x-axis.

In the end, the analogy with language still holds. Being able to read the printed or written word, while not crucial to sustaining life, is certainly important in expanding one’s thinking and getting ahead in life. Similarly, while one can certainly become a musician without being musically literate (the famous tenor Luciano Pavarotti, for instance, had limited music-reading skills, which affected his ability to learn new parts or to follow the orchestral score), whole new ravishing treasure troves of sound are just waiting to be explored and savoured if one makes the effort to learn to read.

What about those who feel that their pure, divine Muse might actually be stifled or silenced if they had the temerity to try and learn to read? The Jazz great Louis Armstrong comes to mind. When he was asked if he knew how to read music, he replied “Not enough to hurt my playing”. Make of that retort what you will. I think he was trying to say that knowing to read music does not necessarily mean you have something to “say” in musical terms. However, if you do have something to say, then learning to read and write music will actually help, and make you a better musician.

(An edited version of this article was published on 9 November 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

In print: Crossing over to the Dark Side: Romancing the “Cinderella of the Orchestra”

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Like so many of us in Goa, my formal introduction to music learning was at the violin. All my major music achievements have been on this instrument. So why is it that, half a lifetime later, I find myself cradling its larger cousin, the viola, in my hands?

I became aware of the existence of violas and violists in Goa when I began playing in various string ensembles in my teens, and later with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra. But while I was aware of the differences (bigger, heavier instrument, tuned a fifth lower than a violin, read a different clef), somehow my curiosity did not extend to seriously trying out a viola myself, let alone taking it up.

But then in the 1990s I got employed in England, and a whole new world opened up. Orchestra rehearsals were much more intense and prolonged, and this is when I really got interested in the instrument. The choice of works (by Vaughan Williams, William Walton, Antonin Dvořák) also exposed me to the sheer chocolatey rich timbre of the instrument, and the lush writing for it in orchestral and chamber music.

Also, any observer of the classical music scene in India, especially when it comes to ensemble playing will soon note that there is a serious deficiency in the lower strings, both in number and quality. While pedagogy for cello is in a league by itself, it is quite possible to make the switch from violin to viola.

On one of my biannual return visits home, I dropped in at Furtados and bought myself a viola and took it back with me with the intention of learning to play it. But the demands of my medical career, and my violin playing in chamber groups and orchestras taking up the scant free time remaining, ensured that this happened at a plodding pace at best.

On returning to India, I auditioned in 2011 to play violin in an orchestra here. And when conductor Vijay Upadhyaya enquired if I’d be happy to take up the viola as there were no takers for those positions, I leapt at the chance. We had a concert in six weeks, and I knew it would give me the impetus I needed to really learn to read the alto clef and to find my way about the instrument.

Since then, my life has changed. Although I still get asked to play violin on occasion, I get called out much more as a violist when it comes to chamber and orchestral playing. That’s the wonderful thing about being a violist. You’re far more in demand than you would be as a violinist. Violinists are a dime a dozen.

Playing one of the solo viola parts in Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto at the 2013 Monte festival was a real turning point for me, a baptism with fire, my first ‘big’ viola achievement, considering I was just two years old on the instrument.

The viola and violists are the butt of many good-natured jokes, on account no doubt of the unwieldiness of the instrument, its deeper tone, the paucity of virtuoso writing for it, and the relatively simpler part writing for it in chamber and orchestral music compared to the violin.

But we are in extremely good company. You’d be surprised to learn how many great composers actually themselves preferred playing viola to violin in ensembles. Let’s start with the ‘big’ ones: Johann Sebastian Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote about his illustrious father: “As the greatest expert and judge of harmony, he liked best to play the viola, with appropriate loudness and softness”.

But there’s also Monteverdi, Johann Stamitz, Mendelssohn, the great violin virtuoso Paganini, Dvořák, Vaughan Williams, Eduardo Lalo, Ottorino Respighi, Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud, Benjamin Britten, Frank Bridge, Carl Nielsen, all the way to Miklós Rósza and Kenji Bunch. Hindemith was a very respectable violist in his own right, besides being a composer.

My friend George Trautwein had introduced me in 1989 to the recordings of the viola greats from the past, Lionel Tertis and William Primrose. But in England, I was also exposed to some superlative viola playing by contemporary stalwarts. I was able to hear Yuri Bashmet, Rudolf Barshai and Pinchas Zukerman. I particularly remember the electrifying performance at the 2006 BBC Proms of Lawrence Power playing viola (who happened to be from the same town I was working in as GP by then) to Maxim Vengerov’s violin in the wonderful Sinfonia Concertante by Mozart. Power really demonstrated the ability of the viola to sing, the lushness of its tone. And the writing for it is just as challenging as for the violin. And why not? Mozart was master of both.

And although the repertoire for viola is not as copious as for its more histrionic (and highly strung?) cousin the violin, there are some sterling concertos and other works for viola and orchestra, notably by William Walton, Telemann, Bartók, Bruch, Bowen, Bainbridge, Casadesus, Hofmeister, Hindemith, Martinů, Milhaud, Musgrave, Penderecki, Piston, Pletnev, Rolla, for some strange reason all the Stamitzes (Anton, Carl and Johann). Berlioz’s Harold in Italy is a viola concerto in all but name. Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Quixote is scored for viola, cello and orchestra, with the cello representing the eponymous hero, and the combined forces of viola, tenor tuba and bass clarinet his comic sidekick Sancho Panza.

In so much ensemble writing in general, the viola far from being just another ‘layer’ in part-writing, is actually the glue that holds the composition together. Try listening to a Mozart string quartet or a Dvořák symphony without the viola line, and it becomes obvious. Dvořák and Vaughan Williams in particular wrote some wonderful orchestral parts for viola, and violists are eternally grateful for this.

And the vantage point in the orchestra is unique. The viola is close to the violins and the cellos, as well as to the woodwind and brass. I’ve learned so much about the genius of the great composers, their brilliant ensemble writing from this plum location.

The belief that only those who can’t cut it as violinists take up viola is so unjust. All the good violists in my circle are wonderful violinists as well. In fact, once you take up the viola, the violin seems like a facile instrument, as it suddenly feels so much smaller, and the shifts and stretches seem far easier. Paganini knew this well. So did so many other violin pedagogues like Max Rostal and Oscar Shumsky. The great living violinists Pinchas Zukerman, Shlomo Mintz and Maxim Vengerov play both with consummate ease, and have parallel careers as violists as well.

So come over, violin colleagues, to the Dark Side! A whole new world beckons.

(An edited version of this article was published on 2 November 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

In Print: Is that Handel calling? Ombra my phone!

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Music and ceell phones

The inveterate quizzers among you will know that the famous Nokia ringtone is a snippet from bars 13-16 of Gran Vals, a composition for solo guitar by Spanish composer Francisco Tárrega. And there are so many other ringtones that are snatches of other classical music tunes (The ‘Lone Ranger’ excerpt from Rossini’s William Tell overture, Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, to name just some of them). Music to your ears? Well, it depends.

The ubiquitous mobile phone has been receiving a large dose of attention on music websites, forums and in the news in general. This compact little device is rightly or wrongly being regarded as an indispensible appendage to people in all walks of life, regardless of age or income.

There are several functions on the mobile phone that bring them into conflict and controversy in the concert hall.

First of all, its very intrinsic function as a phone. It is routine at concert venues around the world for announcements to be made advising patrons to take a moment to switch off their phones. I learnt to my chagrin (thankfully not at a concert!) that merely switching one’s phone into silent or even flight mode does not ensure its silence. If an alarm has been pre-set for a certain time, it will go off regardless. So the only fool-proof option is to switch if off.

However, I am sure that many of you will have been at a concert (or in the cinema or in church) where a phone did go off. In fact, many of us have gotten so inured to such an occurrence that it even somehow seems ‘normal.’ What’s the big deal, one might ask?

Plenty, in fact. Here’s what German pianist-conductor Christian Zacharias had to say after he stopped playing a Haydn piano concerto in mid-performance after a phone rang (twice!) in Gothenburg concert hall, Sweden: “Sometimes it is just too much! …Especially when you get to this moment where the music gets more and more silent and more magical, then I say No. People should realise the music lives on something completely different…The general attitude is sometimes just awful. Music provides a rare moment when our mind can go and focus on one thing. We have prepared this (the music), and this is the least you can do to honour it, in listening, and being there in silence.”

Joyce diDonato defused a similar situation at Teatro La Scala Milan when playing Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello by turning to the audience to ask if it was Rossini calling to comment on her performance of his aria.

One quick-thinking concert violist Lukáš Kmiť incorporated the Nokia ringtone into his performance when a phone rang (thankfully at the end of a movement but ruining the moment nevertheless) while he was playing a Bach suite at the Orthodox Jewish Synagogue in Presov Slovakia. He played a little set of variations on the Nokia tune to much amused applause before resuming his recital.

A phone went off during the closing pages of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony as Alan Gilbert conducted the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall in 2012. The malefactor was found to be a rather shamefaced elderly subscriber who had recently purchased an iPhone and obviously hadn’t figured out how to shut it up. Apparently he has still not lived it down.

The other function any self-respecting smartphone today has is the camera and video option. These also come with their own catalogue of issues.

Last year, Krystian Zimmermann, one of the world’s leading pianists stormed off the stage at a concert at the Ruhr Piano Festival, Essen Germany. The reason? A concertgoer was filming as he played. He requested the person to stop but he didn’t, upon which Zimmermann interrupted the recital and walked off.

Zimmermann returned a few moments later and said “The destruction of music because of YouTube is enormous.” He explained that he had lost recording assignments because the recording companies pointed out to him that those works were already in the public domain through YouTube. I have had visiting performers to Goa tell a similar story. The director of the festival at which Zimmermann played went to the extent of labelling illicit recordings of live concerts as “theft, pure and simple.”

Another issue is that the often appalling quality (visual, audio or both) of the recording can further jeopardise the prospects of a musician, especially one starting their career. A performer having an unusually bad night can have it return to haunt him/her through a recording in the public domain for a long time to come.

Concert violinist James Ehnes has written an insightful article titled “Smartphones in the Concert Hall” for the Huffington Post. He describes an episode where an audience member filmed his performance, and Ehnes’ reaction swayed from “surprise and mild annoyance” to even feeling a little flattered for a moment. He contemplates that a YouTube recording could even widen his reach, getting to nooks and crannies where a live performance never could. But then he makes a compelling argument: “This is how I make my living, and recording a performance changes the economics. When someone buys a ticket to a performance, they are paying to hear that performance once. One could say that it’s a rental, not a purchase. And they are paying for themselves to hear it, not for their friends, families or internet followers. There are those who might accuse me of being miserly, feeling that it is my duty and privilege to share the art of music, but consider the parallel: if I pay someone to mow my lawn, that doesn’t mean that at the push of a button they should mow my lawn again for free, or mow the lawns of my neighbours and friends. A job is a job, and bills are bills. A one-time mow doesn’t cost the same as a weekly lawn service.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 26 October 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Give me Hope, Mozart!

Cosi fan tutte

It is not unusual for directors at opera house around the world, when staging operas even in the standard repertory, to transport the setting to a time and place far removed from that mentioned in the original libretto. In fact, it is almost de rigeur for this to be the case.

Don Giovanni set in a ghetto, Norma uprooted from pagan Gaul into puritanical 19th century America, a puppet-show version of Wagner’s Ring cycle, Rigoletto as bartender to his Mafioso don instead of the Duke. It’s all been done by now. It doesn’t even raise eyebrows anymore. Sometimes it works, a lot of the time it doesn’t. But opera directors carry on regardless.

So it should come as no surprise then, if Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera buffa (comic opera) Così fan tutte were set within a Syrian refugee home in 2014 instead of 18th century Naples. But this is the real thing. In May 2014, a group of over seventy refugees from war-torn Syria were housed a world away from the strife, in the tranquil ambience of a Franciscan monastery Oggelsbeuren in the district of Biberach in southwest Germany’s Upper Swabia. They became participants of an unique opera project.

The opera title Così fan tutte literally means “Thus do all [women]” in Italian, and is popularly used to mean “Women are like that”. The enigmatic title is taken from the words sung by the three men in the cast (Guglielmo, Ferrando and Don Alfonso) in Act 2 Scene 13, just before the finale. Don Alfonso, an old philosopher, lays a wager to the two young officers Guglielmo and Ferrando that their fiancées (Dorabella and Fiordiligi, respectively), in whose fidelity they have unswerving faith, will cheat on them given the first opportunity. The whole opera is built upon this idea.

Mezzo-soprano Cornelia Lanz, in an interview to BBC television, explained,”Our director (Bernd Schmitt) had the idea to put the setting of Così fan tutte into a refugee home… because the whole bet idea can derive from boredom. And where is there more of this than in a refugee home?”

Lanz, who plays Dorabella, has dreamt of playing a part in Così fan tutte since her teens. The concept took flight after she contacted Father Alfred Toennis, who is founder of the charity Give a Home, in Oggelsbeuren.

When the idea of this opera project was first mooted to the refugees sheltering at the monastery, there was some hesitation and even scepticism. Among them was Ahmad Osmani, who had been imprisoned for six months by forces of PresidentBashir al-Assad’s regime. But he was won over as well, and now describes the experience as “a great thing in my life.”

The rehearsal sessions involved daily physical, breathing and vocal exercises, language and diction workshops, and rehearsals with the chorus and crew to assimilate Syrian songs and dance into the production. The rehearsals had an open-door policy, and visitors were encouraged.

The opera project went a long way in integrating the refugees with the local village community. It has also given the refugees a new sense of meaning and purpose, and put an end to the humdrum monotony of their existence in their newly adopted country. Eighteen- year-old Mayza Chemali spoke to BBC TV of the transformative effect of the opera on her perspective and outlook for the future in Germany. The refugees and local villagers, and the opera production crew all worked together to set up the stage for the opera.

The opera also provides a medium for giving the refugees a voice, and to spread their message to a much wider audience. Syrian freedom songs and some stories of individual refugees have been incorporated into the libretto of Così fan tutte. Osmani explains “We are here because of war. We are asking for peace, this is our message. We are looking for peace. Stop war. Enough blood. This is our message.” His weary eyes betray the horrors that he has seen first-hand.

Lanz met regularly with the refugee community and through conversations and rehearsals, heard the stories of their turbulent lives and felt the need to”instil a strong and clear message of hope and peace” into the adaptation. “I am very touched and very hurt by what war does to people”, she said.

Lanz wishes the message of peace to transcend the conflict in Syria. “In the middle of a rehearsal, one of the refugees got a message that some of their family members in Syria had been killed, and that signifies why we want this opera to be a message of peace for Syrians, and also for the whole world.”

This unique production of Così fan tutte premiered in Stuttgart at the Theaterhaus on Sunday 5 October 2014.

(An edited version of this article was published on 19 October 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

In Print: NCPA’s ON Stage magazine, October 2014 issue

June is always a special month for Child’s Play India Foundation, thanks to the World Busk initiative (www.worldbusk.org), in which we have been actively participating since its inception in 2009. This year we had two events, in Panjim and in Aldona, featuring the combined forces of our Suzuki violin children from both those locations. And our ensemble Camerata Child’s Play India comprising young musicians from the wider community performed as well. It was created in April 2013 with one of its goals being to eventually give a platform to our own Child’s Play kids to play in public some day. I was thrilled that Irfan Shimpigar joined the second violins for these concerts.

He played along with us at our well-received concert at Santa Cruz church in August too. Our violin kids stole the show again. One of the highlights of the programme was Georg Philipp Telemann’s famous viola concerto in G major (TWV 51: G9), played by Pablo Travé Gonzalez from Spain. It was Camerata’s twelfth concert since its creation, and it continues to enrich Goa’s cultural life.

Our young violin teacher Stefi Cruz did Child’s Play proud, representing us in the Commonwealth Youth Orchestra in three concert performances in the Royal Concert Hall Glasgow, and St. James’s Palace and the Commonwealth Secretariat, Marlborough House, London as part of the build-up to the Commonwealth Games Glasgow 2014. We were among just two institutions chosen to represent India in this partnership.

We have had a number of volunteers visit and work with us as well. In July-August, we were happy to receive again Santiago Lusardi Girelli and four young musicians (violins, viola and flute) from the University of Seville, Spain. In August we were also visited by Anya Hirdaramani, an Indian-origin Sri Lankan girl currently studying in the UK. She really helped us to strengthen our cello project at a crucial time for us. She taught me the rudiments so that I could work from scratch with a new batch of seven children, the youngest barely six. In a matter of weeks, they are able to play single-octave scales beginning from open strings (C, G and D) and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. A German volunteer is now working with them since early September, and will be with us for a year, during which time he will teach not only the children, but me as well and a couple of older children who have the flair for the instrument and could possibly become teachers. One of them is already working with the younger children to ensure that practice sessions happen daily.

India needs all the help it can get in developing pedagogy for strings, and it is even more acute for viola and cello. It is for this reason that I took up viola a few years ago, and now it is as a violist that I am more in demand, although the violin is still my primary instrument. Since June, I have begun teaching viola to three very bright, enthusiastic 11 year old girls at Child’s Play, and they are able to play scales and simple tunes with gusto. They played at their school on Teachers’ Day, something that gave them a tremendous shot in the arm.

We were visited in July by Avi Mehta, graduate of the Sistema Fellows Program at the New England Conservatory, and actively involved with Sistema USA in Boston. He flew into Goa specially to visit us at Child’s Play, as he has a keen interest in El Sistema-inspired programs around the world. His feedback to us was very encouraging. It was instructive to learn that many issues faced by music education programs (for instance, the struggle for funding, the shrinkage of time for practice and music lessons due to encroachment by mainstream school work) are common across the world. Avi’s observations helped crystallise in my mind what it takes to have a successful project. It is the magic combination of five ingredients: dynamic, inspiring teacher; enthusiastic and hardworking children; supportive collaborator (e.g. the principal of the school or supervisor at the place where the sessions take place); adequate space; and just as crucially, enough time every day spent with the instrument.

In Hamara School Santa Inez where we first began Child’s Play, we have the first three prerequisites. We are even gradually winning the battle for time, although it is still not enough. But the issue of space continues to dog us, and needs to be addressed very seriously as we grow.

Bach, Handel and their ‘Ophthalmiater’

World Sight Day was celebrated last week, on 9 October 2014. It called to mind a rather unfortunate episode in music history involving sight and ophthalmology, or rather its travesty.

Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759) who in later life went by the anglicised name of George Frideric Handel shared his birth year with Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and with Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), making it a truly momentous year in music history.

Although it is believed Handel and Scarlatti did meet, in a test of skill at the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni in Rome (where at least one account adjudged Scarlatti the superior player at the harpsichord and inferior at the organ; nevertheless in later life Scarlatti would cross himself in veneration when recalling Handel’s prowess), Bach and Handel never met. They almost did, though. Bach journeyed from Leipzig to Halle when he heard that Handel would be visiting his elderly mother there. By the time Bach got there, Handel had left.

By a really strange quirk of fate, and unfortunately for both of them, they consulted and subjected themselves to the scalpel of the same “eye specialist”. “Chevalier” John Taylor (1703-1772) gave himself the fanciful title of “ophthalmier”, a word coined by him. Taylor seems to have shown promise as an eye surgeon at the beginning, but spent the bulk of his career in self-promotion and creating a list of celebrity patients for himself. He proclaimed himself “Ophthalmier Royal” to King George II of England, and had the Pope, and several European royal families as his patients. He established himself as a ‘coucher’, or a cataract surgeon, removing cataracts by breaking them into little pieces.

John Taylor oculistTaylor started with good credentials, descendant of a long line of eye surgeons, and trained at St. Thomas’ hospital London. He published “An Account of the Mechanism of the Eye” in 1727. The title page of his autobiography has the motto ‘Qui visum vitam dat’ (who gives sight gives life), and his coach, rather creepily or tackily had eyes painted all over it. He travelled a lot, like other couchers, apparently because the post-operative improvements in their patients’ vision were fleeting before full blindness due to complications of infection etc set in, so it was prudent to leave town quickly after.

There is a paragraph in Taylor’s autobiography which mentions both the composers, and rather uncharitably talks about his experiments with animals in the same sentence: “But to proceed, I have seen a vast variety of singular animals, such as dromedaries, camels &c and particularly at Leipsick (sic) , where a celebrated master of music, who had already arrived to his 88th year, received his sight by my hands; it is with this very man that the famous Handel was first educated, and with whom I once thought to have the same success, having all circumstances in his favour, motions of the pupil, light &c but upon drawing the curtain, we found the bottom defective, from a paralytic disorder.”

So obviously the (in)famous Taylor not only had his surgical technique but even his facts about the composers wrong. He botched the operations in both cases, leaving them both blind, and it is thought that in Bach’s case the complications from the surgery could even have contributed to his demise.

Steven Isserlis, noted cellist and author of children’s books on music writes drily: “John Taylor operated (unsuccessfully) on Bach, as well as on camels and dromedaries (probably unsuccessfully too, but since they never talked about their experiences, we don’t really know).”

Taylor arrived in Leipzig on 27 March 1750, and operated on Bach a few days later. It is believed that Bach’s eye disease prevented him from completing “The Art of the Fugue”, a projected series of twenty fugues. He broke off in the middle of the nineteenth, where the theme ‘B-A-C-H’ (B flat-A-C-B natural) appears in the countersubject. Bach was operated upon twice. One newspaper reported that Bach ‘recovered the full sharpness of his sight’ after the first operation, but this seems untrue from other sources. By 8 April, Taylor had left Leipzig for Berlin, where his stay was cut short abruptly after the King banished him due to his failures.

After over a week of fever and slipping in and out of consciousness, Bach died on 28 July 1750.

Handel began to suffer from visual loss a few years later. In 1751, he had to pause while writing a chorus, with, poignantly, the words “How dark, Lord, are thy decrees”, scribbling in the manuscript that the reason he took a break was that his left eye was “so relaxt”. He was first couched in 1752 by William Bromfield, after some improvement followed by further visual loss, possibly total blindness, occurred. There is a pitiful account of Handel shortly after, at a performance of one of his oratorios, unable to play and ignored by the audience. He could not bear to hear the point in his oratorio ‘Samson’, where he had set the words “Total eclipse- no sun, no moon, All dark amid the blaze of noon” to music. But he made a comeback despite this, having to be led to the organ and to the audience to take a bow. In ‘Samson’, he describes loss of sight as “worse than beggary, old age or chains.”

The last operation was by Taylor possibly in 1758 when both he and Handel were in Tunbridge Wells, a fact corroborated by an anonymous poem “On the Recovery of the Sight of the Celebrated Mr. Handel, by the Chevalier Taylor”. Despite the poem’s optimistic title, Handel remained blind.

Lest we judge Taylor too harshly: he was among the first qualified surgeons to operate on the eye, a field which was largely the preserve of quacks, and probably did bring relief to many blind people at a time when (as we know from Handel’s own bitter railing at his predicament) blindness was a subject of apathy and ridicule. G. Coats in his book “The Chevalier Taylor” summarises him well: “Many elements go to the formation of the complete charlatan – bombast, effrontery, dishonesty, ignorance. All these qualities Taylor showed in perfection –except ignorance, and this is his chief condemnation.”

In a case of somewhat poetic irony, Taylor’s last years were spent in obscurity, and yes, total blindness.

(An edited version of this article was published on 12 October 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Making in India: More than Industry and Technology

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The ruling government has rolled out its ‘Make in India’ campaign with much fanfare. Its purpose is to woo investors, particularly Indian businesspeople who have been investing elsewhere, to return to the mother country. “Come; Make in India” is the clarion call being sent out to them.

The slick ‘Make in India’ website has a lion (why not the tiger, our national animal, one wonders) made up of cog wheels, emblazoned in profile across its homepage, and it has a long list of sectors ranging in alphabetical order from Automobiles to ‘Wellness’ (Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homoeopathy). The list also includes Mining, which is a loaded topic for us in Goa, as we have seen its fallout at the environmental level here over several decades, affecting our water, air and soil quality and our very future, with very little returning to the state exchequer. One can only hope we have learnt from past mistakes and will not repeat them.

A clear example is China, who we seem to be in competition with, and who launched their own copycat “Made in China” campaign closely on the heels of ‘Make in India’. We would do well not to repeat their mistakes. Their incredible growth rate has been achieved often at the cost of devastation of their environment and trampling on the human rights of their own people. I fervently hope India does not consider this a path worth following.

The Defence industry is another sector that might be seen by most of us as a necessary ‘evil’, but the idea that an entire industry can revolve on the premise of destruction of human lives is somehow unnerving to me. And the idea of my country collaborating with this objective in mind with other countries around the world, particularly Israel, which has recently claimed so many innocent lives in Gaza in the name of its own defence, makes it even more disturbing.

Obviously the ‘Make in India’ campaign is targeted at manufacturing and industry, and bringing in employment and revenue. Done responsibly, this could be good for the economy, of course.

But are our country’s needs only material? What about other indicators of well-being? How does one define “prosperity” and how does one begin to measure it?

There have been efforts by economists, statisticians, and social scientists to identify solid data indicators that are “illuminating, publicly available, and standardised across countries” which can measure “wellbeing” far more sensibly than the yardstick generally used but has serious limitations, namely the GDP (gross domestic product). Simon Kuznets, the economist who developed the concept of GDP, put forth this disclaimer at the very outset: “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.” But despite this, it continues to be used as a lazy tool for assessing a country’s progress.

The Legatum Institute defines prosperity as both wealth and wellbeing and uses a Prosperity Index as a new unit of comparison of prosperity between countries. The most prosperous nations therefore are not necessarily those with a high GDP, but those with happy, healthy and free citizens.

In their words, “Prosperity is more than just the accumulation of material wealth; it is also the joy of everyday life and the prospect of an even better life in the future. This is true for individuals as well as nations.” 

The nine sub-indices of the Prosperity Index are: A robust economy; Innovation and Entrepreneurship; Education system that is free-thinking, high-quality, accessible and that fosters human development; Democratic institutions that are transparent and accountable; Government and governance that is honest and effective preserves order and encourages productive citizenship; Health; Personal Freedom of individuals to voice their views, and to lead and choose the course of their lives; Security; and Social Capital (trustworthiness in relationships and strong communities).

The ‘Make in India’ initiative seems to address just the first two sub-indices. But there is much more that needs to be ‘made’, or addressed. A growing economy is necessary, but not sufficient, for national prosperity. Without additional factors–such as accountable governments, healthy citizens, strong social capital, and respect for civil and political liberties–a nation cannot achieve sustainable prosperity.

Therefore, going by the Prosperity Index, India currently ranks 41st, ahead of China (75th) despite its superior growth rate, and ahead of Russia (69th). It would be foolish of us to push for an increase in our GDP at the expense of the wellbeing and liberties of our people and of our environment.

In addition to manufacturing and factories and jobs, India should work really hard on improving the public health sector, sanitation, and a complete overhaul of the education system, making it truly accessible in every furthest reach of the country, and encouraging free thinking instead of indoctrination. Free speech and expression are of course a given, and the current Big Brother attitude to comments on social media and in the press, literature and art seem to be steps in the opposite direction.

Just as the red carpet is being rolled out for foreign investors in the finance and business sector, India urgently needs to be just as welcoming to pedagogues for music education to help us build a robust infrastructure for music well into the future. This is a page we can certainly take from China’s book. The current Government of India regulations make it almost impossible for charities and non-governmental organisations to bring in foreign nationals to work and teach here. At this point in our history, we need them to ‘Make in India’ a strong foundation for music pedagogy from the grass roots level to the very top. We can only hope the government is listening.

(An edited version of this article was published on 5 October 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Raising the Bar for Western Classical Music in India

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Back in 2012, I had written a blog post after watching an interview on Prudent Media with Rohan Ricketts, a footballer who was then with Dempo Sports Club but who has also played in the world’s finest football teams. He made interesting observations about the state of football in Goa and the rest of the country, and I realised that many parallels could be drawn with the state of western classical music in India.

The fundamental issues are the same: the lack of infrastructure, both at the grass-roots and at the higher levels; of world-class coaching; of wider exposure among our youth to really high-quality playing; the ever-decreasing time spent by schoolchildren and college youth on anything deemed as ‘extra-curricular’ as school hours, homework and tests and entrance exams increase; and the current absence of a well-defined career path in either sports or music, and therefore the pressure from parents and society to pursue ‘white-collar’ professions even if the youth show real promise elsewhere.

I was thrilled during World Cup frenzy to hear my mentor Dr. Rufino Monteiro and my friend Eddie Noronha elaborate on Goa365 the radical new changes happening in Goan football, which if carried out consistently into the future, with rigorous world-class training, will undoubtedly yield great fruit in the future. And now we also have Zico as coach for FC Goa!

The ‘playing field’ of western classical music must be studied and its problems addressed with the same diligence. Clearly the powers-that-be in Goan football have made this analysis, and therefore their investment in the future, very wisely. Their own passion and deep knowledge of the game has been their impetus.

We should be able to admit to ourselves that our current level in the way we play and perform classical music, and teach and learn it, is far from the world standard. It is imperative that we get high-quality teaching, both for our really young children, and for those among our youth that might have advanced to a higher level. For too long, we have been doing the same thing over and over, and unsurprisingly, the ground situation has therefore also not changed much. As in football, a good ‘coach’ at the very earliest and onward will make a world of difference.

Exposure to world-class playing through regular high-calibre concerts achieves so much. It gives us the elemental experience of the “live” concert, which the best hi-fi equipment and videos can never match. It brings our youth into direct contact with musicians, who can inspire and become role models for them. So many musicians on the world stage and in orchestras got their ‘wake-up call’ when they were taken as children to such concerts. It was life-changing for them, and it could be for our children too.

These interactions also give the bigger picture to our youth, of the wider world of classical music. A few visiting musicians have commented to me that our youth lack the ‘hunger’ and ‘fire in their belly’ for making better music and learning more about the music. But this is not entirely the fault of our young generation, as they have just not yet been immersed in the optimal milieu. There is actually evidence to quite the contrary; that small improvements in the teaching of our youth yield very high dividends very quickly. If this can be done consistently, we can achieve so much more.

Classical music desperately needs patrons who are passionate about it and willing to invest in it, just as Peter Vaz and others like him are about football. We need purpose-built venues for music just as we do for football. Look at so many centres of musical excellence and higher learning around the world (the Juilliard School of Music New York; Peabody Conservatory Baltimore; Oberlin Conservatory Ohio; Curtis Institute Philadelphia; Conservatórios Gulbenkian in Aveiro and Braga); they began with the vision of one or of a group of philanthropists, which has left a lasting legacy that persists to this day, a century or two later. We remember their names today because of their vision and their generosity. Now is the time for the private sector to step forward, and do something that will benefit India and will boost their own image in society. There’s never been a better time than now. We as a nation have a new sense of self-confidence, and apparently we have the money too.

Our state-run music institutions like the Kala Academy also need to make a comprehensive, holistic clinical examination, (led by really knowledgeable, credible experts in music education, and not solely by politicians or bureaucrats), of the state of health (or not) of music in Goa, just as Dr. Monteiro and his colleagues at GFDC are doing on the football field. If we are to make a real tangible difference for the future, we need to widen our reach to tens of thousands of children rather than a few tens or hundreds. All of them have to be taught to a really high level from a very young age. If, as is currently the case, we do not have this expertise on the ground, we have to import it. There should be no short cuts here.

China has a head start of several decades on us, and is now in the enviable position of not only having enough high-calibre musicians for its own musical life, but able to ‘export’ them to the world.

Just as there are health benefits to be had from football which will positively affect our future generations, these benefits are true of music as well, not just for health, but in becoming better citizens and a kinder, gentler, more humane society.

Just as promotion of football can create a whole ‘industry’ and avenues for employment (coaches, nutritionists, equipment, merchandise etc), the same is also true for music. We currently have a severe lack of good luthiers, instrument restorers, piano tuners, etc, because there isn’t a living to be made from it. But if we take music to a truly high level, these opportunities will open up, and will improve the ‘game’ in an upward spiral.

There are so many parallels between music and football. Both are ‘played’; both require teamwork. In both, the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. And the lessons learned on the playing field and the rehearsal room are just as valuable as, if not more than, any academic curriculum. I hope our educationists and policy-makers realise this.        

(An edited version of this article was published on 28 September 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Fiddler on the Roof

The recent staging of the musical ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ by a group from Bangalore could not have been better timed, for it was in this month (22 September to be precise) that it opened on Broadway exactly fifty years ago, in 1964.

It was the first musical theatre run in entertainment history to cross 3000 performances. Fiddler ran for almost 10 years, holding the record for the longest-running Broadway musical until Grease came along to surpass it. It still is the sixteenth longest-running show in Broadway’s history.

Fiddler on the Roof was the first commercially successful English-language stage production about Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

It is based on ‘Tevye and his daughters’ (or Tevye the Dairyman) and other tales by leading author and playwright from the Ukraine, Sholem Aleichem (real name Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich 1859-1916), written in Yiddish and published in 1894. The musical gets its title from the painting “The Fiddler” by Marc Chagall. Chagall used the lives of Eastern European Jews as his inspiration for many of his paintings, and the fiddler was a recurrent fixture in a lot of them.

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As we know so well from the musical, the Fiddler on the Roof is a metaphor for the precarious continuity of age-old tradition in the face of constant uncertainty and change. The story revolves around Tevye and his five daughters as he tries to maintain Jewish familial and religious traditions while the outside world gradually catches up with him and the rest of the closely-knit Jewish community in their village Anatevka in the Pale of Imperial Russia in 1905.

Aleichem, like Mark Twain wrote under a pen name (Sholem Aleichem is a Yiddish greeting ‘Peace be with you’, or ‘How do you do’) , wrote for both adults and children, lectured widely on tour in Europe and the United States, and their writing styles were similar. When Twain heard that Aleichem was being nicknamed “the Jewish Mark Twain” for these reasons, he retorted “please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem.”

Aleichem’s narratives accurately depict the life in the ‘shtetls’ (small towns with large Jewish populations) of Eastern Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and his characters have a cheerfulness and wit (manifest so brilliantly in Tevye and his daughters) that masks a tragic side to their lives.

Aleichem suffered from triskaidekaphobia, a morbid fear of the number 13. His manuscript pages have ‘12a’ instead of 13 on the thirteenth page. Interestingly, he died on 13 May 1916. Even his tombstone avoids this number, preferring to mention his birth and death dates according to the Hebrew calendar.

When in his 20s and living in Kiev, Aleichem would holiday in the summer with his family in Boyarka, a forest resort town an hour away. There, a dairyman named Tevye did the rounds door-to-door, delivering milk and home-made cheese and butter.

Aleichem loved Tevye’s wares and later wrote that the three things he loved most in life were newspapers, dairy foods and Jews — as well as his conversation, which he would scribble, amid chuckles, in his notebook.

Tevye soon featured in Aleichem’s writing, as “Tevye the Dairyman — The Story of His Sudden Rise, Described by Tevye Himself and Dictated to Sholem Aleichem Word by Word”, later revised as “The Jackpot” or “Tevye Strikes It Rich”. It is peppered with the witticism and the ‘Tevye-isms’ that makes Fiddler on the Roof so entertaining. The real Tevye in fact wished to remain anonymous, and requested Aleichem to leave his name out whenever possible. It is truly ironic that the tables have turned completely, with Tevye much more well-known and Aleichem now consigned to obscurity in much of the world.

Several decades after Aleichem’s Tevye stories, a Soviet theatre company visited Boyarka and were so impressed by Tevye that the actors bought him a new cart and dairy equipment.

In Aleichem’s several stories featuring Tevye, Tevye’s adventures play out in real time. In these stories, Tevye gains a fortune, loses it and is subjected to a series of his daughters’ ever-more non-traditional marriages. So the story we are familiar with through Fiddler on the Roof is just the culmination of a longer saga.

Aleichem was personally witness to the pogroms that were unleashed in southern Russia in 1905, and the pogrom and the Tsarist edict commanding the inhabitants of Anatevka to leave the village in the story draw to some extent from his own experience.

He fervently championed the cause of Yiddish as a ‘national’ Jewish language and of Zionism.

The dramatisation of Tevye the Dairyman and his daughters, first for the theatre as a musical (with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein) and later as a film in 1971, has had its share of critics. Some feel that Tevye has been made too saccharine, too ‘sugar-coated’, in order to appeal to a wider public, especially in the US.

The musical and the film helped Aleichem’s story reach to a far wider audience than he could have dreamed, but also overshadowed his own writing.

Nevertheless, Fiddler on the Roof is emblematic of much more than just Tevye’s story. Jeremy Dauber, Aleichem’s biographer states “Forget Sholem Aleichem, there’s no talking about Yiddish, his language of art, without talking about Fiddler on the Roof. There’s no talking about Jews without talking about Fiddler.”

Bock’s music with its broad sweep of the orchestral palette is sensitively scored to bring the Jewish shtetl “to life”; the tone colour of a clarinet, a folk violin, and the Eastern European and particularly Jewish harmonies played out in lush string sound are highly evocative. The sighing pauses in the show-stopping “If I were a Rich Man” are as much a part of the score as the notes, adding to the wistful meaning of the song, a fantasy, lament, tirade and song of resignation and acceptance all in one. The quasi –onomatopoeic use of woodwinds at the precise moment that Tevye sings about the squawking of “chicks and turkeys and geese and ducks” is pure genius.

The production at the Kala Academy recently had its pluses. The main cast was well-chosen: Tevye, Golda, Mottel Tamzoil, Tzeitel, Perchik, all of whom delivered their lines really well. The Bottle Dance and Tevye’s Nightmare scene featuring Grandma Tzeitel and Frumah Sarah were cleverly staged. It was wonderful to hear ‘The Rumour’, which isn’t in the film version.

But there were huge drawbacks as well. The biggie was the use of an electric synthesizer in place of a live orchestra, which reduced the music to a real travesty. The fiddler was not up to much as well, but that didn’t really matter so much.

The whole production was rushed, as if they really wanted to shorten its length as much as possible.

This might seem like quibbling, but the mispronunciation of Tzeitel as ‘Zeitel’ when it should have been ‘Tseitel’ was jarring every time her name was mentioned, which was often.

And the very opening of the musical had the emphasis wrong when they sang “Tradition”. It should have been sung so that the first syllable of the word ‘Tradition’ was on the upbeat, and the second on the strong, downbeat ie “Tra-DI-tion”. This is how one would pronounce the word, with the emphasis on the second syllable. Instead, they chorus persisted in singing “TRA-di-tion”, with the first syllable on the downbeat.

“To Life” had several moments of dodgy intonation in the singing, especially from Lazar Wolf.

(An edited version of this article was published on 21 September 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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