Carmen for children, and Wind-Up Penguin!

It’s been two weeks since our annual Child’s Play ‘Take a Stand’ Monsoon concert on 28 July, and the heartwarming messages of appreciation continue to pour in.

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As many of you will be aware, we restarted our children’s choral project earlier this year with choral director Claire Hughes (UK); in a few weeks we will be joined by a choral director from Portugal, and we all look forward eagerly to welcoming and working with her.

Currently we have Abigail Kitching, also from the UK, who has got our children, in the Child’s Play project and in the wider community, all excited about opera.

The opera she has chosen is Carmen by the French composer Georges Bizet (1838-1875). To call it a groundbreaking work would be an understatement. Carmen must have shocked its audience at its first performance at the Opéra-Comique Paris in 1875. What would they have made of its fiercely independent, extremely ‘un-lady-like’ eponymous leading lady, tossing social conventions contemptuously into the air and scandalizing purists in the process?

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Perhaps understandably for its time, the four-act opera was not well-received initially; the chorus and orchestra of the Opéra-Comique after a few rehearsals threatened to go on strike, deeming it “unsingable and unplayable.” The reception in general threw Bizet into a deep depression, and he would die just three months after the premiere performance, on the day of its 23rd performance, of a massive heart attack, aged just thirty-six. Carmen would only achieve international fame in the decade that followed Bizet’s death, and today ranks among the most often-performed and popular operas of all time.

Its libretto, in French, was written by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, and is based on a novella of the same title by Prosper Mérimée. Set in southern Spain, it is the story of the moth-to-flame attraction of naïve soldier Don José to femme fatale Carmen. José jilts his childhood sweetheart and deserts from his post to follow her, but in vain; she is drawn instead and unapologetically to the charismatic matador (toreador) Escamillo, filling José with such jealous rage that he stabs Carmen. Love, jealousy, death… all potent operatic ingredients.

Bizet, who had never been to Spain, admirably imbues the opera with Spanish flavor and a host of memorable tunes, which along with the sizzling sexual tension between the two leading roles, have ensured its immortality.

That tension obviously has to be sensitively handled in a production for children. And the lyrics have been translated into English. Kitching chose three scenes and arias from the opera: the Habanera (L’amour est un oiseau rebelle; Love is a rebellious bird) from Act I;

and the Toreador song

and the Flower song (La fleur que tu m’avais jetée; The flower that you threw at me), José’s plaintive love song from the second Act.

The children are thoroughly enjoying the over-the-top drama of it all as they sing and enact the scenes. Opera when being described to an Indian audience has often been likened to Bollywood, as there’s the same exaggeration of emotional highs and lows, and the breaking into song and dance at the drop of a hat (or a flower, as in Carmen). When the children were introduced to the character of Carmen, someone who can light up a room and make heads turn and jaws drop at her mere presence, were asked to name a contemporary icon who would have such an effect today, almost all chose some Bollywood star or the other, with just a few citing a pop sensation as well.

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It is the children’s first introduction to opera, and will hopefully dispel the fuddy-duddiness that usually accompanies the genre. They will ‘stage’ their three scenes as part of the opening act to our next concert featuring the Wind-Up Penguin Theatre Company (UK) on Saturday 18 Augut 2018 at 6 pm, Menezes Braganza conference hall. Passes are available at Furtados Music stores and will be available at the door just before the event.

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Several of you will have attended our past presentations of the Wind-Up Penguins. Child’s Play has partnered with them every year since 2015. Wind-Up Penguin Theatre Company is a children’s musical theatre company, made up of a group of creative people, musicians, singers, actors and technicians from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), London.

“We come together to create pieces of children’s musical theatre and then take our shows to developing countries, where we perform to children in schools, hospitals, orphanages and slums, or anywhere we can find them! We then work with the children, showing them the instruments and giving them the chance to experience live music, an opportunity many have never had before”, wrote Abi Heath, one of its members to me during our initial correspondence.

It was founded in 2012 by Elisabeth Swedlund and her classmate at the Guildhall School from Romania, Ioana Macovei-Vlascceanu. She had been running a summer camp for children in a very poor, very isolated village in Romania for five years, and had always profoundly wished to be able to bring something more artistic to children who lived in places where they have practically no access to culture, art, and multiculturalism – often in less affluent parts of the world. Ioana’s parents run a school which is in contact with many charities, and they organised their first project – performing in hospitals, orphanages, and rural schools around Bucharest. The experience was life-changing for the nine students involved – they went back to Romania (with eight extra Guildhall students, so seventeen of them), the next winter. Once they realised it was relatively easy, in this day and age of internet communication, to arrange performances around the world, they started to extrapolate to countries they really wanted to work and perform in. Several years later, they have conducted more than 13 projects, and performed to over 10000 children in more than 150 different places all over the world. The Wind-Up Penguin theatre company has so far visited Romania, Bulgaria, Germany, Belgium, Greece, Lebanon, India, Brazil, Colombia and Peru. They create professional-standard musical theatre performances which they have then taken into refugee camps in Europe resulting from the current crises in the Middle East, and to hospitals, schools, orphanages and special needs centres in the countries they have visited.

If their past performances are anything to go by, we are assured of a high-class interactive entertainment act for children (of all ages!),  incorporating a cappella singing, musicians, comedy theatre, balloons and puppets.

So let the show begin. Just don’t let Carmen flutter her eyelashes at you. You’ve been warned, José!

(An edited version of this article was published on 12 August 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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What would Jesus do?

How many of you remember the WWJD fad back in the 1990s? I certainly remember meeting a young American visitor and asking her what those letters on her bracelet meant.

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It stands for “What Would Jesus Do?” The slogan was coined by some adherents of Christianity “as a reminder of their belief in a moral imperative to act in a manner that would demonstrate the love of Jesus through their actions.”

This idea of the “Imitation of Christ” goes back even earlier. It seems to have been topical even in Portuguese Goa, judging from the reams of literature on the subject I found in our family library, dating back to 1955. “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas à Kempis (c. 1380- 1471) is thought to be the most widely read Christian devotional work after the Bible.

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“What Would Jesus Do?” was the title of a 2010 American film whose plotline readers might find interesting: A pastor of a small town in rural America that is going through hard times  galvanizes the people into action to prevent a ruthless politician and his wealthy real-estate tycoon cronies from setting up a casino there. By asking a simple question at every step and of every town resident “What Would Jesus Do?” they valiantly “fight off the temptation of money and the easy path.” I am sure any resemblance to any situation familiar to us is (cough, cough) is purely coincidental. But it does provide food for thought.

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WWJD has been a rallying cry all over again in Donald Trump’s America, especially following the heart-rending separation of immigrant children from their parents. It has largely arisen as a riposte to US Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoting chapter and verse from the Bible, and admonishing believers to “obey and follow the law.” He had said in a speech to law enforcement officials: “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”

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This abuse of the Scriptures was roundly condemned by several prominent leaders of the black clergy in the US, notably Rev. Jesse Jackson among many others.

Rev. William Barber II reacted, “Twisting the word of God in defense of immoral practices was a tactic used to justify keeping Black people in chattel slavery, committing genocide against Native Americans and segregating people under Jim Crow.”

Jackson agreed: “The government tolerated lynching just like they tolerated slavery.”

But WWJD question has been on my mind for a long time before this, with particular reference to the Holy Land. Perhaps understandably, my fascination with that part of the world began very early, given my Catholic upbringing. Ever since Bible stories were read to me as a child, I’ve dreamed of visiting the Holy Land. I’ve imagined going to Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee and Jerusalem. I’ve listened breathlessly to accounts of relatives and friends who’ve been there.

But the more I’ve learnt about the brutal oppression of Palestinians in their own land, the more I’ve been asking myself this: What would Jesus have done, had He walked the earth in 21st-century Palestine, instead of 2000 years ago?

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Many of you will have heard of Daniel Barenboim, whom Wikipedia rather laconically sums up as “a pianist and conductor who is a citizen of Argentina, Israel, Palestine and Spain.”

But that description, while factual, hardly does him justice. He is a humanitarian with a firm belief in music as a vehicle for social change, and perhaps even more crucially and directly, for bringing peace to a troubled land and its people. Together with the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said, he founded the West-Eastern Divan orchestra, made up of young Arab and Israeli musicians. Their very presence on the same stage makes a powerful point, and their high musical standard proves that great things can be achieved even when people whose histories are inimically opposed to each other are able to look past that and work together.

Barenboim is a resolute critic of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and he wrote a strong op-ed in The Guardian on 23 July, titled “This racist new law makes me ashamed to be Israeli.”

He was referring to the most recent “nationality law” passed by the Knesset in Israel, which states that “only the Jewish people have the right to national self-determination in Israel.”

Reacting to the same legislation, expatriate Israeli historian and activist Ilan Pappé wrote a piece in The Hindu, “Israel’s new law is a form of apartheid.”

He reminds the reader that “For those of us who struggle for justice and equality in Palestine, India symbolised the way forward in its anti-colonialist liberation campaign and its resistance in being drawn into Cold War imperialist politics.” And he warns: “The nationality law should remind Indian politicians who their new bedfellows are.”

Barenboim uses the same word “apartheid” in his condemnation of this new law: “We have a law that confirms the Arab population as second-class citizens. It follows that this is a very clear form of apartheid. I don’t think the Jewish people lived for 20 centuries, mostly through persecution and enduring endless cruelties, in order to become the oppressors, inflicting cruelty on others. This new law does exactly that. Therefore, I am ashamed of being an Israeli today.”

It leads one again to ask: What would Jesus have done in today’s Holy Land? How would He react to so many of us, from Goa, from the rest of India, continuing to turn a blind eye to injustice, while visiting the landmark sites on pilgrimages that urge us to tread His path and recall His life on Earth? But can we in the bargain turn a deaf ear to His message?

What about Matthew 25:40 “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

For that matter, What Would Jesus Do here in India, where lynchings have become so commonplace that they’re not even front-page news anymore? Where they can be dismissed by politicians under the most ridiculous pretexts, even legitimized, with perpetrators garlanded by politicians, far from any punitive action taken against them?

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What Would Jesus Do? It’s a hypothetical question, of course. But I think the answer can be found in the quiet corners of our hearts, minds, souls and conscience.

(An edited version of this article was published on 05 August 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

 

“Behind every successful man….”

A recent soprano-and harp concert on 19 July 2018 at Menezes Braganza showcased, as the performers titled it, “A Musical Marriage”, the compositional output of a husband and wife.

Many of us will have heard of the husband-and-wife composer pair Robert and Clara Schumann; equally many will know of the Italian operatic composer Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), probably one of the most popular opera composers in history. But few will have heard of his first wife Isabella Angela Colbran (1785-1845), opera singer and composer of four collections of songs.

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As her name might suggest, she was Spanishby origin, born in Madrid. She studied with voice teacher Girolamo Crescenti in Paris, and by the age of twenty had caught the attention of most of Europe with her singing.

Some accounts describe her as a dramatic coloratura soprano, while others peg her as a mezzo-soprano with a high extension, a soprano sfogato.

Her career spanned the Teatro della Scala Milan, the Teatro Comunale Bologna, and the Fenice Venice, before arriving in 1811 at Naples.

Naples then was the centre of the opera world, and Colbran quickly established herself as prima donna of the Bourbon monarchy’s Real Teatro di San Carlo, home to all the famous singers of her generation, including the celebrated castrato Farinelli.

Her fan base included the King of Naples, Charles VI himself; she was believed to be his mistress as well of the theatre’s impresario Domenico Barbaia. Her romantic dalliance with the latter was her introduction to, and her fatal attraction for gambling, as Barbaia was also in the gaming parlour business.

Her addiction to gambling would eventually see her squander off not just her enormous professional income, but her sizeable family inheritance as well.

Perhaps it is a good thing she never got into a time machine and teleported herself into 21st century Goa; she would probably have spent all her time literally ‘out at sea’ at gaming tables in offshore casinos rather than actually hitting the high Cs on land for us. Which would have been unfortunate, as her vocal range in her prime is documented as extending from F-sharp below the treble staff to the E above the staff, sometimes extending to the high F as well. Some accounts even credit her with a range of three octaves at the height of her powers.

 

It was with Colbran’s prowess in mind that Barbaia signed Rossini onto a seven-year contract in 1815, to compose operas for his company. The position would make him musical director of two Neapolitan theatres, the Teatro di San Carlo and Teatro del Fondo, with the proviso that he would write an opera each year, for each of them. Oddly enough, in addition to his salary of 200 ducats each month, he was also to receive “a share” from the gambling tables set in the Teatro di San Carlos’ ‘ridotto’ (private room), amounting to an impressive 1000 ducats each year. If Rossini too fell prey to the temptations of chance, posterity hasn’t recorded it well.

But the composer certainly was taken by Colbran, who was seven years his senior. In 1815, he wrote the title role of ‘Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra’ (Elizabeth, Queen of England) especially for her. She sang the role of Desdemona in his next opera, ‘Otello, ossia il Moro di Venezia’ (Othello, Moor of Venice, 1816), which turned out to be particularly popular.

Other roles written by Rossini in his Neapolitan operas with Colbran in mind: Armida (in the eponymous opera, 1817); Elcia (Mosè in Egitto; Moses in Egypt); Zoraide (Ricciardo e Zoraide); Ermione (Ermione); Elena (La donna del Lago); Anna (Maometto II); and Zelmira (Zelmira).  The lines that he wrote for her hint at the vocal acrobatics she was capable of: trills, half-trills, staccato, legato, ascending and descending scales, octave leaps.

 

Somewhere along the way, the two got romantically involved, and were married in 1822 after their move to Bologna. Colbran’s voice was beginning to show signs of strain and decline; in Venice the following year, Rossini created the title role of his opera Semiramide for her, writing her part so as to camouflage the deficiencies in her capabilities. Nevertheless, although the opera itself was a success, the audience could hear that Colbran was past her prime. Rossini wrote a total of ten operas for her voice.

Her reprise as Zelmira in the eponymous opera in 1824 was also a disappointment, and Colbran perhaps prudently retired from the stage aged just 42.

The couple separated in 1837. Around the same time, Rossini began seeing Olympe Pélissier, an artist’s model, in Paris. She had sat for the painter Émile Jean-Horace Vernet for his picture of ‘Judith and Holofernes’. Was she the cause of the separation? Some accounts indicate that they became close after Rossini and Colbran separated, not before.

Whether it was out of consideration for Colbran’s feelings, or for appearances, Rossini and Pélissier were only wed in 1846, a year after Colbran had died in Bologna, aged 60.

That Rossini genuinely respected Colbran is indisputable. All his life, he maintained that she was the greatest interpreter of his music. Indeed, one of Rossini’s nicknames was ‘Signor Colbran’. In their heyday, they were the ‘power couple’ of opera.

When she was devastated by the death of her father, he commissioned an elaborate sculpture for the Colbran family mausoleum, depicting a woman weeping at the foot of her father’s tomb.

In her final years, Colbran’s health declined (some speculate that this was almost certainly due to pelvic inflammatory disease contracted from venereal diseases from her flagrantly unfaithful spouse) and her finances dwindled, compelling her to sell off parts of her family estate. Rossini sent her monetary support to the end.

Although Colbran’s compositional output seems to have been four song collections (with text by the librettist Pietro Metastasio and scored for voice and piano or harp, and dedicated one each to the Empress of Russia; her teacher Crescenti; the Queen of Spain; and the Prince Eugène de Beauharnais), elements of her style were emulated by the likes of Vincenzo Bellini.

Although the actual marriage between Colbran and Rossini could perhaps itself constitute the plotline of a tragic opera, their “musical marriage” left us an enduring legacy, with some of the greatest operas in the repertory that might never have seen light of day had it not been for the inspiration embodied in Isabella Colbran, perhaps one of the most ‘unsung’-about singers in music history. Her story deserves to be better known.

(An edited version of this article was published on 29 July 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Bach in the saddle again!

From the time I heard Winston Collaco’s violin pupil Anthea Luna-Marie Dias when she played in our ensemble Camerata Child’s Play India at our Christmas concert in 2016 (she was just ten then), I’ve wanted to give her an opportunity to make a concerto debut. And I’m glad to announce that the moment is finally here: on Saturday, 28 July at Menezes Braganza hall, at Child’s Play India Foundation’s annual monsoon concert, she’ll be playing Johann Sebastian Bach’s lovely violin concerto in A minor, BWV 1041, leading from the violin the musicians of Winston’s Escola Amadeus String Ensemble (E.A.S.E.) and Camerata Child’s Play India, as part of Child’s Play’s ‘Young Performers’ series. This is literally music to Goa’s ears, and a huge milestone in Goa’s music history. I don’t think a 12-year old home-grown, locally-trained Goan child has ever played a whole concerto in public here ever before. My only regret is that we didn’t do this even earlier.

I have myself been Winston’s student back in the 1980s (it seems like another lifetime!) even though I am younger than him by only just a couple of years, and watching him work with Anthea and the rest of his students took me back to those days. My own students think I’m a bit of an intonation policeman, but he’s even fussier about intonation than me, which validates my own obsession even further. And he will persevere for ages at rehearsal to clean up the minutest details, sometimes in just a bar or two, until it is sorted.

And there was another surprise for me: the return to musical action of another old friend, taking up double-bass for the demanding basso continuo line that runs right through the concerto: Edgar Mendes, whose musical history with me precedes even my friendship with Winston, going back to our days together, first at St. Cecilia musical school, and later at Academia da Música (today’s Kala Academy department of Western Music). All three of us have played in the orchestra led by Fr. Lourdino Barreto in Goa, and were in the Goan contingent of the Bombay Chamber Orchestra in the 1980s and 1990s.Today’s generation get paid airfares for such excursions, but you really haven’t lived if you haven’t hurtled down the Goa-Bombay highway in an interstate Kadamba bus that is trying hard to cross the sound barrier (and sometimes succeeding!), while you hug your instrument-case in your lap for dear life!

What a difference a double-bass makes, especially in this composition! It gives the whole work so much more body, texture and grounding.   For the most part, our Camerata Child’s Play India has largely performed without double-bass since its inception in 2013, so it is really wonderful, and gives a delicious vibration to the core of one’s being to have it on board.

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It feels so good, the three of us from an earlier generation reuniting to make music and create opportunities and platforms for GenNext that we didn’t ourselves always receive.

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If one considers that Johann Sebastian Bach fathered twenty children (he became a daddy for the first time aged 23, and the last was born when he was 57! Sadly only ten survived into adulthood), one wonders how he ever found the time for his duties as an employed musician and teacher, let alone his prodigious output of compositions. It also left the thorny issue of how his musical legacy would be divided among his heirs after his death. Most of his compositions were divided between his two oldest living sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel. While the latter son took good care of his share of the legacy, Wilhelm Friedemann, despite showing great musical promise, fell into hard times and sold some of his father’s masterpieces to pay off debts, and these are deemed ‘lost’ to posterity. Bach almost certainly wrote many more than the three violin concertos we know about today; some still survive in other forms, such as harpsichord concertos, while individual movements have probably been incorporated into the body of Bach’s cantatas. One lives in constant hope that an exciting discovery could still be made on some dusty library shelf or attic. Stranger things have happened; if works by Vivaldi could surface in our time, so could those by Bach.

Musicologists aren’t unanimous about when this particular concerto, in A minor, was written: while it was “generally thought” that Bach wrote it while he was Kapellmeister at the court of Anhalt-Köthen (1717-23), it now seems more likely he wrote it during his Leipzig period, sometime in the 1730s.

In his Weimar years (1708-1717), Bach encountered concertos by his Italian contemporaries such as Albinoni and others, but Vivaldi proved the biggest influence upon Bach’s own concerto writing. This ‘Venetian’ or Vivaldian model gives this concerto its three-movement (fast-slow-fast; Allegro – Andante- Allegro assai) formal layout, the basic ritornello (the “little return”) structure of an alternating pattern of solo and tutti (ensemble) episodes, seen most strikingly in the first movement.

But although the mould may be Vivaldian, Bach transcends it, taking it to a completely new level as only he could: the ostinato (insistent, persistent) bass motif in the beautiful second movement is a particularly Bachian fingerprint, something that he seems to use in some shape or form in the second movements of all his violin concertos. The final movement is in the metre and rhythm of a gigue, the lively Baroque dance which was inspired by the Irish jig. Even here, Bach innovates by introducing subtle counterpoint in the accompaniment, with the main theme presented by the first violins, then followed in turn by the seconds, violas and bass. He writes a virtuosic bariolage passage for the soloist in its climax. The term bariolage comes from the French ‘barioler’, “to streak with several colours”. It is a term easier demonstrated on the instrument than explained in words; but essentially involves rapid alternation of a static note (usually an open string) with changing notes on an adjacent string above or below, that form a dazzling melody. The device exploits the contrast between the timbre of the open string and the stopped string.

Johann Sebastian Bach is associated so much with the keyboard because of his formidable legacy for that instrument that it is easy to forget he was a highly skilled violinist as well. This is amply evident in his sublime writing for solo violin in the six works (three sonatas and three partitas) for solo violin, and another good example of bariolage is to be found in the Preludio to his third Partita in E major.

The monsoon concert will also feature the Child’s Play Chorus with an array of songs ranging from Africa to Hollywood; and the junior Camerata Child’s Play with a Latin American orchestral suite, a medley of Goan dulpods, and a kaleidoscope of other works by our violin, viola, cello and flute students. Donation passes at Furtados Music stores in Panjim and Margão.

(An edited version of this article was published on 22 July 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

A Colonial History and other lessons from Football

I’m hardly the football expert, and would fare terribly in any quiz on football history, league football or player stats. But I do get excited by the Beautiful Game every four years at World Cup time.  It’s just too seductive, the match upon match, the nail-biting misses, the soul-uplifting, often balletic poetry in motion when a player slams the ball into the net against impossible odds from the most unexpected angle, and the intoxicating procession of sometimes tongue-twisting names from every corner of the globe.

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Over the last few World Cups I’ve realized that the composition of the team squads of the former colonizing nations often betrays their colonial past.

Take Portugal for instance: Bruno Alves has Brazilian ancestry; Pepe was born and raised in Brazil; Manuel Fernandes and Ricardo Pereira are of Cabo Verdean descent; William Carvalho was born in Luanda Angola and Gelson Martins in Cabo Verde.

Moving on to France: Presnel Kipembe has a Congolese father and Haitian mother; Samuel Umtiti was born in Yaoundé Cameroon; Paul Pogba has Guinean parentage; Thomas Lemar was born in Baie-Mahault, Guadeloupe; Kylian Mbappé’s father is from Cameroon and mother from Algeria; Ousman Dembélé’s mother is of Mauritanian and Senegalese descent, while his father is from Mali; N’Goto Kanté’s parents are also emigrés from Mali; Blaise Matuidi has a Congolese mother; Steven Nzonzi has a Congolese father; Steve Mandanda was born in Kinshasa, then Zaire, today the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Adil Rami was born to Moroccan parents.

I am sure there are others, but this is what a cursory search revealed. But this is true of other former colonizing nations as well: Spain, Italy, Belgium, England, Germany.

At first glance, one could conclude that this is a reflection of how multi-cultural the world in general, and Europe in particular has become; one could therefore argue as an extrapolation from that line of thinking that the significantly high colonial representation in these team squads reflects how much emigrés from former colonies have been assimilated into contemporary European society. Also, if people from former colonies are entitled to citizenship rights of the colonizer country, then technically speaking, they are not even emigrés, but equal citizens, and so it is perfectly natural to see such representation.

But scrape a little beneath this façade, and some truths are less palatable. I came across a paper on the Taylor & Francis Online website taken from ‘Soccer and Society’ journal (volume 8, 2007 – Issue 4: Globalised Football) titled “African Football Labour Migration to Portugal: Colonial and Neo-Colonial Resource” by Paul Darby, University of Ulster at Jordanstown. It makes the case that the process of African player migration to Europe has involved varying degrees of neo-colonial exploitation and impoverishment of African football. In exploring the place of Portugal in broader migratory patterns between African and European football, it looks at “the extent to which Portugal has used football talent from its former colonial ‘possessions’ such as Mozambique as a colonial and neo‐colonial resource.” It further argues that while “those players who have ‘made it’ in Portuguese football have benefited hugely economically and in terms of access to improved training conditions,” “their migration to Portuguese football is part of a wider process that has under‐developed African football.”

Another aspect is how non-white players are regarded in Europe, both in their home country and abroad. This 2018 FIFA World Cup got off to an unpleasant start when racist chants were hurled at French players Dembélé, Kante and Pogba by Russian fans during an international friendly match, just months before the games. Russia was fined by FIFA for the incident.

The French right-wing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen has gone on record to say that there were too many “players of colour” on the national team, to the extent that France “cannot recognize itself in the national side”. He also criticized some players (sound familiar anyone?) for failing to sing the national anthem.  Le Pen’s remarks invited a strong response in particular from Lilian Thuram-Ulien, France’s most capped player, denouncing the National Front leader as being ignorant of the make-up of his country’s society and history.

What would Le Pen have to say to Kylian Mbappé’s stunning two powerhouse goals that secured France’s win over Argentina on 30 June at Kazan, “leaving Lionel Messi in his wake as a World Cup changing of the guard unfolded before our eyes”, as the sports page headline of the Independent so poetically put it?

Or to Samuel Umtiti’s decisive solitary goal against Belgium on 10 July, catapulting France into the finals?

 

Mais non. When such players bring victory, they are fêted. But woe betide them if they don’t. As long as Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku is on a roll, he’s “Belgian”; if he doesn’t deliver for whatever reason, the national press feels it necessary to mention his “Congolese descent”.

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Belgium’s chapter of colonialism in the Congo still haunts them despite attempts to air-brush the period from their school history books. Monuments to King Leopold II abound, even though during his reign, an estimated 10 million people in the then “Congo Free State” were put to death, with horrific abuses, including mutilations and amputations inflicted even on little children. Yet, the tag of crimes against humanity (the “hidden Holocaust” as it is sometimes called today) conveniently eluded them until fairly recently.

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The legacy of this colonial past in Belgium is a condescending attitude to non-whites, particularly on the football pitch. The Belgium Football Association receives about 25 racism-related complaints a year, but the problem must be much more widespread.

Such attitudes unfortunately extend across Europe as well. Look at the abuse hurled at Swedish midfielder Jimmy Durmaz (who was born to Assyrian parents, who migrated from Midyat, Turkey) conceding a late free-kick against Germany at Sochi on 23 June. This was his response: “I am a footballer at the highest level so I have to accept that I am criticised for what I do on the pitch. That’s part of the job – and I am always willing to accept that. But there are limits….When someone threatens me, when they call me darkie, bloody Arab, terrorist, Taliban … then that limit has been passed. And what is even worse, when they go after my family and my children and threaten them … who the hell does that kind of thing?”

 

Brazilian midfielder Fernandinho got similar racist vitriol after his unfortunate own-goal in the crucial match against Belgium on 6 July.

This is something that Portuguese footballer Ricardo Quaresma (of partial Romani descent, and therefore nicknamed ‘O Cigano’, ‘The Gyspsy’) knows well. In a 2014 interview, he said: “When I hear people say there is no racism nowadays it makes me laugh. When something happens in Portugal it’s always the fault of gypsies, blacks, immigrants. It’s tough to live with this.”

This is the ugly side of the Beautiful Game that so many players face even today.

(An edited version of this article was published on 15 July 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

19 July 2018: Came across this video which I thought I’d share here:

And now this (23 July 2018):

 

None Shall Sleep

 

I think that’s a fair prediction? No football-crazy person with access to live coverage of the FIFA World Cup matches will sleep very much this week, just as so many of us haven’t  ever since it all began.

“None Shall Sleep” is the literal translation of “Nessun dorma”, the title of possibly the best-known and loved operatic aria on the planet. And it owes its popularity to football as well.

The great Italian operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti’s 1972 recording of it was used as the signature tune of BBC television’s coverage of the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy. It caught the public imagination, climbing to #2 on the UK Singles Chart.

Nessun Dorma

Pavarotti went on to sing Nessun Dorma at the first Three Tenors concert (also featuring the Spanish tenors Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, with Zubin Mehta conducting the orchestras of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and Teatro dell’Opera di Roma at the ancient Baths of Caracalla) on the eve of the 1990 World Cup final. He sang it again as an encore at the concert, taking turns with Carreras and Domingo.

 

 

The album of the concert outsold all other classical music recordings worldwide, and Nessun dorma became a regular feature at subsequent Three Tenors concerts. It has since become a football anthem in its own right.

So what’s the aria all about anyway, and where’s it from?

It is taken from the final act of the opera Turandot by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924).

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The creative cascade is an interesting one. Puccini first read an adaptation by German poet, playwright, philosopher and historian Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805)

of the commedia dell’arte play Turandot by Italian playwright Count Carlo Gozzi (1720-1806) who based it on a story from the collection Les Mille et un jours (A Thousand and One Days) by the French orientalist François Pétis de la Croix (1653-1713).

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But the original story is based on one of the seven stories in the epic Haft Peykar (The Seven Beauties)

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by 12th-century Persian Sunni Muslim poet Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1209),

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considered the greatest romantic epic poet in Persian literature. Nizami aligned his seven stories with the seven days of the week, the seven colours and the seven corresponding planets.   

The story of Turandot is the story of Monday (“moon day”) with the protagonist identified in the very first line of the story as a Central Asian princess. Turan-dokht (daughter of Turan or “land of Tur”, Persian term for a region in Central Asia, formerly part of the Persian empire, in which the Turanians, or an Iranian tribe of an Avestan age were thought to have settled) is a common term used in Persian poetry for a Central Asian princess.

But Puccini’s operatic version of the story transplants the setting to China and has Calaf, il principe ignoto (the unknown prince) fall in love at first sight with the beautiful but cold-hearted princess Turandot. Any suitor wishing to marry her has to solve three riddles, and a wrong answer means death.

Oksana Dyka in the title role and Aleksandrs Antonenko as Calaf in Puccini's "Turandot" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

The three riddles are: 1. “What is born each night and dies each dawn?” Answer: Hope

  1. “What flickers red and warm like a flame, but is not fire?” Answer: Blood
  2. “What is ice which gives you fire and which your fire freezes still more? What is the ice that makes you burn?” Answer: Turandot herself.

Calaf answers all riddles correctly, to cheers from the crowd. But Turandot still refuses to marry him. He strikes a deal with her, offering her a counter-riddle:  “You do not know my name. Tell me my name before sunrise, and at dawn, I will die.” She accepts.

All this has transpired in Act 2. Act 3 opens with a night scene in the royal palace gardens, with heralds proclaiming Turandot’s command to her people:  “This night, none shall sleep in Peking! The penalty for all will be death if the Prince’s name is not discovered by morning”.

Calaf’s aria echoes the edict “None shall sleep” (Nessun dorma), and then adds “Not even you, o Princess, in your cold bedroom, watching the stars that tremble with love and hope.”

He ends the aria with the certainty of his victory, which makes it in that sense apt as a football anthem: “All’alba vincerò! Vincerò! Vincerò!” (At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win!)

Puccini began writing the opera in 1921 even before his librettists Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni had written the libretto. But he died of a heart attack in 1924 (he had been diagnosed a month before with throat cancer) before he could complete it, fuelling much confusion and controversy on who would finish writing the opera. Franco Alfano was chosen because his own opera La leggenda di Sakùntala (The legend of Shakuntala) matched to some extent the setting and heavy orchestration of Turandot. Nevertheless, at its premiere, conductor Arturo Toscanini dramatically laid down his baton at the point to where Puccini had reached in writing the opera, turning around to announce to the audience “Here the opera ends, because at this point the maestro died”.

The opera suffers from the orientalist clichés of its time, and its performance was forbidden by the People’s Republic of China for its unfavourable portrayal of China and the Chinese people. Can one blame them? The choice of names for three character roles (Ping, Pong and Pang) seems designed to poke fun and ridicule. Gilbert and Sullivan did the same thing in their 1885 operetta The Mikado, set in imperial Japan, with names as farcical as Nanki-Poo, Pooh-Bah, Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing, Peep-Bo. It was meant to satirise British politicians and institutions, but it would, and still does offend sensibilities even today.

Turandot was only performed in China in 1998, running for eight nights as Turandot in the Forbidden City as an international collaboration with Zubin Mehta conducting, with lavish sets, and even with soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army as extras.

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“Nessun dorma” is the setting for an action scene in Mission Impossible 5 Rogue Nation, when the assassin is programmed to execute her target at the literally high point of the aria, the final “Vincerò”. The melodic material of ‘Nessun Dorma’ appears quite a few times later in the film, even being intertwined with Lalo Schifrin’s signature “Mission Impossible” theme.

Which country has its own Mission Impossible, Will a Rogue Nation prevail? Whatever happens, it is clear that None shall sleep this week. May the best team win!

(An edited version of this article was published on 8 July 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Three young Goan violinists impress at Singapore

Some weeks ago, I wrote a column “A Star is Born”, describing the goosebumps I got when twelve-year old Anthea Luna-Marie Dias played Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen with such panache at Porvorim in April. All through her performance, I couldn’t help thinking of another young girl of a similar tender age, eleven-year old Singaporean violinist Chloe Chua.

I had been following the Menuhin Competition Geneva (12-22 April 2018) on live streaming video online, and the performance of this confident young girl had won not just my heart, but of the jury (that included violin greats such as Maxim Vengerov, Itamar Golan and Ilya Gringolts among others), who awarded her the first prize in the junior division of the competition. In the final round, she played a contemporary work for solo violin, Self in Mind by Jaehyuck Choi; and the Winter concerto from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, leading from the violin the musicians of l’Orchestre Chambre de Genève.

Do watch the YouTube clip.

The next time yet another movement of yet another Vivaldi violin concerto is trotted out here by much older players to gasps of awe, it is worth remembering that Vivaldi’s interest in concerto writing was fuelled by his employment at the Ospedale della Pietà which specialized in teaching music to young orphaned and abandoned girls. So his concertos were aimed at this very young demographic, of pre-teens and teenagers.

Chua shared the prize with another brilliant young violinist, ten-year old Christian Li. In fact, South-east Asian young violinists swept four out of the six junior prizes and two out of the four senior prizes in this Europe-based competition.

Junior Menuhin Competition Finalists 2018 Cover

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Some decades ago, it would have seemed unimaginable. It is time our youth from our part of the world storm such citadels.  It might seem a faraway dream, but it is possible with the right pedagogical approach, applied more widely and in a more sustained manner.

At the time I attended the Porvorim concert, I couldn’t have dreamed that Anthea and Chloe would soon meet each other just a few weeks later at a chance encounter in Singapore.

Anthea travelled with Amanda Rodrigues (14) and Ravi Almeida (21) to Singapore in May. But this was not a summer holiday break. They all successfully auditioned to join the S.A.V.E. (Systems Approach to Violinist Enrichment) courses for more advanced violinists conducted by its founder Professor Lan Ku Chen, Honorary President of the Taiwan Talent Education Association (TTEA), violin Teacher Trainer of the Asia Region Suzuki Association (ARSA), and Representative of China Affairs of the International Suzuki Association (ISA) and ARSA.

Dr. Chen has also taught master classes and Suzuki teacher training courses in many countries, including China, Korea, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Australia and the U.S. His students have previously won prizes at international competitions, notably the Menuhin competition, as well.

Anthea and Amanda are students of Winston Collaco, founder of Escola Amadeus in Margão, and one of only two accredited Suzuki teachers in all India, and the only accredited Suzuki teacher in Goa; Ravi is currently studying with Pheroze Mistri, violinist, conductor and violin pedagogue who had majored in violin and conducting in Vienna, notably studying conducting under the famed Hans Swarovski. All three (Anthea, Amanda and Ravi) did their teachers proud, performing to enthusiastic acclaim at the ProMusica concerts in Porvorim and Margão.

I was especially delighted that Ravi was going to the S.A.V.E. courses. As many of you will know, Ravi has been on the string faculty of our music charity Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org) for three years, commuting thrice a week from Margão to instruct the bulk of our violin and viola students who are at two of our locations. An enrichment of his violin skills ought to help our children as well.

Dr. Chen was extremely impressed with the high level of playing of all the Goan violinists. He lavishly praised the efforts of Winston in getting such young players to such a high level so quickly.

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The first S.A.V.E. course covered hand positions, revised bow hold, vibrato and shifting exercises, while the second course revised and extended instruction in all the above and also addressed double-stops (the simultaneous playing of two notes on two strings), with attention devoted to intonation, shifting of fingers, and position shifts. And both courses addressed the vital issue of tone production.

Such a structured course is in glaring contrast to the run-of-the-mill ‘masterclasses’ that many visiting musicians offer periodically here, with opportunistic, blasé attention given to whatever the students are playing at the time, which doesn’t allow either teacher or student sufficient time to address core issues and problems in playing. I used to get excited initially when such ‘masterclasses’ were announced, (and to some extent I still do), but over time I have come to realize their limitations. An in-depth course like Dr. Chen’s S.A.V.E. is far more likely to yield fruit.

Winston has a strong bond with the Asia Region Suzuki Association, making frequent visits to their meetings and teaching sessions in Singapore over the years. He has imbibed and internalized the core principles of the Suzuki method well, and the results are there for everyone to see and hear. Apart from Anthea and Amanda, he has several other very young violin and viola students who are playing to a very high level in a remarkably short time.

As a visiting Trinity College examiner said to me, the Suzuki method is only as good as the teacher teaching it. His statement is starkly evident in Goa. Winston’s students are much more proficient, confident, and play much more musically than their peers (even if one adjusts for the age of the child and number of months or years being instructed) being taught by other teachers using the Suzuki method. Winston’s students have a solid secure intonation, and produce a beautiful sweet tone, and have a better grasp of the music. This is not at all a reflection on the ability or potential of the child, but it invites all of us in the teaching community to ask ourselves what we need to discard in our own teaching method, and what we need to learn and incorporate.

Another notable difference I find is how quickly Winston introduces his children to level-appropriate out-of-Suzuki-repertoire material, and the sheer volume of it. While many others have students slavishly scraping away for years, often with poor tone and intonation, at Suzuki material of this or that Book level to the exclusion of anything else, Winston’s students are studying the rich mainstream violin repertoire: études, sonatas, works for violin and piano, and chamber and orchestral repertoire. This is as it should be. Any method should be a means to an end, not an end in itself. I for one in all humility would invite Winston to share with the rest of us in the teaching community the secrets of his teaching methods, so that more young children in Goa can achieve their potential more fully and rapidly.

(An edited version of this article was published on 1 July 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

If it’s Russia, it must be Tchaikovsky

 

Most of you will have watched the live coverage of the opening ceremony of the FIFA 2018 World Cup in Moscow.

As the camera swooped down upon the stadium, passing by a volley of footballs, what did we see and hear? With the magic of digital technology, we saw pianist Denis Matsuev and a Yamaha concert grand suspended in mid-air as he played the dramatic opening chords of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in E flat minor, Opus 23 in response to an invisible orchestra (the Mariinsky Theatre Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev).

This was a clip from their performance of the work the previous night at the gala concert in Moscow’s landmark Red Square. Tchaikovsky was the opening act there too.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) is easily the most iconic, recognizable and loved Russian composer of all time, and arguably one of its biggest cultural exports.

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Wherever he is in the afterlife, he is certainly having the last laugh. Several of his contemporaries didn’t consider his music “Russian enough.”

To understand this, we have to go back further in time to the reign of Tsar Peter the Great (1682-1725), during which “Western” ideals and culture were celebrated and encouraged.

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During his Grand Embassy (a diplomatic mission he undertook in 1697-98 to persuade Western powers to ally with Russia against the Ottoman empire, but didn’t succeed in his mission), he came under the influence of European customs which he felt were superior to Russian traditions, even in 1699 changing the date of celebration of the new year from 1 September to 1 January, and switching from the old Russian to the new Julian calendar.

The 1812 invasion of Russia by Napoleon threw Russia into a serious identity crisis.

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There was a groundswell of support for art, literature and music that represented Russian culture and celebrated Russian history, mythology and fairy tales.

It is this backdrop that created “The Five” (also called “The Mighty Handful” or “The New Russian School”), five prominent Russian composers that worked together to create distinct Russian classical music, led by Mily Balakirev (1837-1910), and including Cesar Cui (1835-1918), Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881), Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) and Alexander Borodin (1833-1887).

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The Five (called Kuchkists, after ‘Kuchka’ for Handful) sought to compose a distinctly Russian form of art music, rather than one created following European-style conservatory training or modeled upon earlier European music. None of the Five had a conservatory education, and their leader Balakirev even felt it limited musical imagination. They believed the music they produced was more “authentically Russian”, being somehow more earthy than that of their conservatory peers.

Tchaikovsky differed with them to a degree: he too wanted to write music that was Russian in every respect, but still of such quality that would cross all boundaries and hold up to the professional scrutiny of his Western peers.

The Saint Petersburg Conservatory (ironically known today as the N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov Saint Petersburg State Conservatory, as Rimsky-Korsakov would be appointed professor there in 1871!), the first music school in Russia, was founded in 1862 by Russian pianist-composer Anton Rubinstein. Tchaikovsky was among its first students, graduating in 1865.

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In 1866, the Moscow Conservatory (today the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory, as Tchaikovsky was appointed its professor of music theory and harmony at its inception) was formed by Russian pianist, conductor and composer Nikolai Rubinstein, younger brother of Anton Rubinstein.

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In 1869, the Russian Musical Society (RMS) was formed, by Rubinstein and his patron Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, to raise the standard of music education in Russia.

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All these changes were for some a matter of great national pride, as Russian music schools would be truly “Russian”, with even instruction in the Russian language. Prior to this, anyone wishing to pursue music studies would have to receive instruction from a foreigner or go to Germany or elsewhere in Europe.

On the other hand, others, like the Five, felt they were not Russian enough. Led by Balakirev and with the support of music critic Vladimir Stasov, they attacked the RMS ceaselessly, verbally and in print. They were fearful of the influence of German instructors (Anton Rubinstein looked up to Beethoven and Mendelssohn) and precepts into Russian classical music. Some of Balakirev’s animosity was driven by as much by envy of Anton Rubinstein (with a generous dose of xenophobia and anti-Semitism, as Rubinstein was of German and Jewish descent) as well as ideological differences. By association with both the conservatories, Tchaikovsky became a prime target.

Balakirev in 1862 founded the Free School of Music, to help create a “Russian” school of music, but on his terms. Education was offered free of charge to its students.

The Five drew much inspiration from the music of Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857), the first “truly Russian composer” and regarded the fountainhead of Russian classical music.

Relations between Tchaikovsky and The Five remained cautious, even when tenuous friendships did develop between him and some of them.

The stirrings of nationalism were not unique to Russia alone, of course, but swept like a wave across Europe with disastrous consequences, eventually being among the root causes of the two World Wars.

It is important to remember that nations and nationalism are after all artificial constructs, defined by “boundaries drawn in the blood of past wars”, to quote philosopher A. C. Grayling. All-too-often, ardent ‘love’ for one’s nation translates into knee-jerk pathological hatred of those beyond those boundaries, or even worse, violent hatred even of those within, due to ever-narrower and bigoted definitions of who conforms to this ‘nationalistic’ ideal.

It is a sentiment that politicians and world leaders repeatedly exploit to their advantage. Looking at Russia, Vladimir Putin benefited from it time and again, to consolidate power, and to justify the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and his actions in Ukraine and Georgia. The choice of ardent Putin supporter Denis Matsuev not only as soloist but as master of ceremonies at the gala concert came as no surprise.

How would Tchaikovsky himself have fared in 21st century Russia, which gains so much currency and prestige from his music? Most biographers are agreed that he was homosexual, despite the best efforts of Soviet-era censors to suppress vital evidence, especially Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest’s autobiography who mentions it quite candidly. Although “same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults in private” was decriminalized in 1993, hate crimes against LGBT persons are not uncommon.

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How would he (and how should we) react to Russian nationalism gone awry, with ultranationalist Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky dreaming of the day “when Russian soldiers can wash their boots in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and switch to year-round summer uniforms”?   Nationalism is a dangerous beast; we should all recognize it and be wary of it.

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(An edited version of this article was published on 24 June 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Remembering Jonah Poplove (13 March 1993-24 Sept 2017)

 

I’ve been meaning to write this column for some time. The shocking death of American celebrity chef, author and television personality Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018) reminded me again about it.

In 2013, I was delighted to be part of the Canada-India Youth Orchestra collaborative initiative in Bengaluru that would have J.S. Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D minor BWV 1043 (featuring our very own Ashley do Rego as one of the soloists), Igor Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, and Antonin Dvořák’s formidable Symphony no. 9 (“From the New World”) on the programme. I’m no youth now, nor was I one then, so I was grateful to be included in the project. I used to play up to eight concerts a year in my England years (1998-2008) with the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra in London, and it was soul-nourishing. I actually made career choices (turning down offers further afield that would have helped advance my medical career) just so I could be in the vicinity of London, to continue to play in this extremely high-caliber ensemble. After returning to India in 2008, it still is the one thing I miss most about living in the UK. It therefore felt good to be playing such weighty repertoire again.

Most, if not all the musicians were paired so that each member of the Indian contingent shared a music-stand with a Canadian counterpart. Jonah Poplove was assigned to me.

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The viola section was being led by Neal Gripp, a living viola legend, pupil of the great William Primrose and currently principal violist of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and who has commissioned and premiered several new works for the instrument.

There was something really special about Jonah, more than just his technique and musicianship, which were top-drawer. He exuded a certain radiance which was quite palpable to those around him. As desk partners, we bonded particularly well, given the hours spent together at viola sectionals and tutti rehearsals. We got to know each other even better at lunch and tea breaks, and the dinners hosted for the orchestra.

I learned that Jonah was deeply invested in music education and its many extra-musical benefits. He had begun learning violin at the age of four, and switched to viola in his teens, and was now teaching violin and viola in Ontario. He took a real interest in Child’s Play India Foundation http://www.childsplayindia.org, our music charity for disadvantaged children, and we discussed many aspects of music education, and making learning fun for children.

Perhaps it was because he realized I was a doctor, but he was extremely open about his history of depression. Although I’m not a psychiatrist, I did a year’s residency in psychiatry as part of my General Practice Vocational Training when I switched from obstetrics and gynaecology to general practice. And during my years as General Practitioner, I saw my fair share of patients with mental health issues. Jonah and I discussed how attitudes to mental health, and support networks, differed in Canada, the UK and India. I told him of my wife Chryselle’s years volunteering for Samaritans Mumbai, the suicide prevention helpline.

I have fond memories of those days. One that stands out is the mnemonic that the conductor Alain Trudel taught the violas to help us with our highly exposed but rhythmically daunting section just before the close of the third movement (Scherzo-Molto vivace) of the Dvořák: 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3, 1. Repeated notes, at first five to a beat, then four, then three and finally one. It’s just the violas on their own, so we can’t screw it up. The solution? Think of consecutive sentences with those numbers of syllables: “I-like-po-ta-toes. Do-you-like-them? I-like-them. Too!”  Worked like a charm! I’ll never forget it. It also helps that I really do like potatoes.

Both my other treasured memories from those days are related to Jonah. We were being bussed to an evening function, and to pass the time, his fellow Canadians coaxed Jonah to recite some of his spoken-word poetry. He finally agreed, and a hush descended on the bus when he began. The ambient traffic noise seemed to fade away as he drew us into another realm, of humour, but profound wisdom and truth as well.

At the event, he surprised me further when he sang the Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’ to the accompaniment of his own viola, playing the chord progressions bowed on his instrument. I’ve never heard ‘Blackbird’ sung or played so innovatively or so soulfully before.

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I wish I had recorded both this song and the poetry recitation.

I remember discussing with Jonah the following day Paul McCartney’s acknowledgment of the influence of Bach (McCartney was inspired by the Bourrée from Bach’s Suite in E minor for lute, BWV 996), and his reference to the Black civil rights movement in 1960s USA (the “black bird” stood for a black woman “only waiting for this moment to arise”) when he wrote the song.

Jonah had some tricky solo passages in the Pulcinella, and I would watch and learn so much as Gripp gave him a masterclass.  I remember Gripp commenting to me on Jonah’s immense potential, and what a multi-faceted human being he was. Barely twenty, he had all the world before him.

This picture is just one of so many we took in the post-concert euphoria, and in all of them Jonah is the life of the party, infectiously exuding happiness and impish humour.

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After we parted, we kept in touch for a while; a lot of it had to do with ideas for Child’s Play. Then the contact dwindled to just what I could glean from his Facebook page.

I cannot convey the shock I got and the grief I felt when I heard via Facebook that Jonah took his own life in Canada last September. He’s been on my mind such a lot since then. I take solace in imagining his spirit flying high and free, like the blackbird he sang about with so much feeling that heady night.

Why am I writing about him in faraway Goa? To celebrate the life, however short, of an incredible musician, a sparkling, intelligent, witty, warm, generous human being who touched the lives of so many everywhere he went, including so many of my musician friends (almost the entire Indian viola contingent was Goan)  here.

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This is also a suitable time to remind ourselves that we are all vulnerable, we all need each other. Alive! Let’s help each other to stay that way. It could be a visit, a phone-call, a kind card or letter (or text or social media message).

Let’s break taboos about mental health in general. It can be quite literally life-saving. Let’s talk more openly about it.

And for those of us who need help with depression and/or suicidal thoughts, or know someone who does, here are useful numbers: COOJ Suicide Prevention helpline (0832)2252525; Samaritans Mumbai 8422984528/8422984529/8422984530.

One of Jonah’s last Facebook posts was this quote by Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly:

“It is far more important who the elementary music teacher is in a small town than who the director of an opera house is because if the opera house director is not good, he will be dismissed in a year, but a poor music teacher in a small town can kill off the love of music for thirty years from thirty classes of children. This is an enormous responsibility.”

Music education was always on Jonah’s mind. It is among the many things I will remember you for, Jonah! Rest in peace, my friend. Shalom.

(An edited version of this article was published on 17 June 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Please visit this GoFundMe link to support the making of a tribute video for Jonah Poplove by his close friends.

Here are two videos that I found, that remind us what a sensitive musician and what a loving teacher he was:

 

 

Music and Ornithology: Mozart’s Starling

 

I got interested in birding during my England years. It was a great way to explore the outdoors on my own or with like-minded people, and to make new friends as well. The British, although not blessed with our density and profusion of birdlife, take their bird-watching very seriously indeed. I’m not the most knowledgeable or keen-eyed birder around, but certainly an enthusiastic one.

At some point over the years (I can’t remember where I came across it), I had read about Mozart owning a pet starling. So much about composers is urban legend and needs to be fact-checked, so it didn’t really register. But I was reminded about this on my Facebook feed a few days ago. So I decided to look it up.

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It turns out to be true. In fact, last year, Seattle-based ecophilosopher, naturalist and author Lyanda Lynn Haupt published a book, “Mozart’s Starling”, based not just on her historical research, but she also made the effort to rear a starling (named Carmen, who still lives with her) to experience first-hand what it is like, living with a bird of this species.

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For bird nerds: the bird that Mozart purchased in 1784 is likely to have been the common or European starling, Sturnus vulgaris.

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Although extensive records of letters from Mozart to his father, sister and others (and vice versa) exist, he only very briefly (and probably at the nudging of his wife Constanze, as money passed through Mozart’s hands like a sieve) kept a record of all his purchases during this period.

This is how we know that he bought a starling on 27 May 1784 for 34 kreutzer.  Now this in itself was not something remarkable; the Mozart family was accustomed to having pet birds. When Mozart was fourteen, he wrote back home to his sister Nannerl while on tour in Naples: “Write me, how is Mr. Canary? Does he still sing? Does he still pipe? Do you know why I am thinking of the canary? Because there is one in our anteroom that makes the same little sounds as ours.”

Another letter written by Nannerl a few years later reveals that the Mozarts also owned tomtits and a red-breasted robin. We also know that Mozart had a pet canary in the final years of his life, because his biographer Hermann Abert documented that on Mozart’s deathbed “it was with great reluctance that he agreed to have his pet canary removed, first to the adjacent room, then even further away, because he could no longer bear the sound of its singing.”

Why then a whole book particularly dedicated to the starling? This is where music comes in. Starlings are fantastic mimics, on par with birds more famed for their mimicry, such as a parrot or parakeet. Although the European starling is not found here, I have heard its cousin the common myna from the same starling species mimic mundane urban sounds such as the irritating beep of a reversing car.

What caught Mozart’s fancy was the fact that this starling had ‘learnt’ the opening bars of the last movement (Allegretto-Presto) of his Piano Concerto in G major (No. 17, K. 453) that he had completed just a few weeks earlier, and had not yet been performed in public. Mozart even took the trouble to notate how closely the bird’s version matched his composition; apart from a fermata (a pause over a note) and two sharpened G notes instead of G natural, the bird had learnt the tune perfectly.

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Mozart in many ways could be regarded as the epitome of the musical mimic, and indeed when on tour as a child, would often be asked to perform a given tune in the style of other composers living or dead.  It was a party trick often expected of gifted composers such as Mozart. Through history, we find other composers being asked to do this as well. Perhaps Mozart was amused by the kindred spirit, although an avian one.

Presumably Mozart taught the melody to the bird, or perhaps the starling picked it up soon after purchase, who knows? But however the starling came to learn it, it pleased Mozart. “Das war schön!” (“That was nice!”), he wrote alongside.

The starling lived a good three years with its owner, which apparently is the average lifespan of a starling in captivity, although the longevity record is almost 23 years. It would have been companion (and sometimes inspiration too with its birdsong and chatter?) to Mozart in some of his most fertile years.

Mozart, who had a love-hate relationship with his father Leopold, nevertheless was devastated by the latter’s death on 28 May 1787, even more so because, for a whole host of reasons, he couldn’t leave Vienna to attend the funeral in Salzburg. (It is widely believed that the vengeful Commendatore in Mozart’s dark opera Don Giovanni, written in October 1787, is a thinly-veiled reference to his father).

Literally days after his father’s demise, on 4 June 1787, Mozart’s starling died. He arranged an elaborate funeral service for the bird, exhorting his friends to arrive in mourning black clothes, “a funeral procession, in which everyone who could sing had to join in, heavily veiled”, followed by a solemn burial of the bird in his garden. Was this Mozart having a laugh? Perhaps. It is possible that the over-the-top ritual appealed to the darker side of his humour, or was it his cathartic way of holding some sort of memorial in memory of his father?

That Mozart loved his starling is abundantly clear from the lengthy poem he wrote, “a sort of requiem, epitaph in verse” for it. This is the English translation:

“Here rests a bird called Starling,

A foolish little Darling.

He was still in his prime

When he ran out of time,

And my sweet little friend

Came to a bitter end,

Creating a terrible smart

Deep in my heart.

Gentle Reader! Shed a tear,

For he was dear,

Sometimes a bit too jolly

And, at times, quite folly,

But nevermore

A bore.I bet he is now up on high

Praising my friendship to the sky,

Which I render

Without tender;

For when he took his sudden leave,

Which brought to me such grief,

He was not thinking of the man

Who writes and rhymes as no one can.

June 4, 1787.

Mozart”

There is a theory propounded by Meredith West, a psychology professor at Indiana University, that Mozart’s A Musical Joke (Ein musikalischer Spaß), K. 522, completed ten days after the starling died, on 14 June 1787, is a tribute to his pet. Do have a listen, and you’ll soon realize why it has its title.

It is unlikely anything he ever wrote, and sounds like a sequence of unrelated musical ideas illogically strung together. Musicologists have attributed it to a send-up by Mozart of some of his contemporaries he was making a playful dig at. But to West, “this composition has starling written all over it.”

In her book “Mozart’s Starling”, and in a freewheeling talk on the subject, available on YouTube, Haupt takes you through linguistics and the construction of “sentences” by various species including ours, and of course her own personal experience living with a starling.

The stringing of (to us) unconnected ideas are the hallmark of a starling birdsong “sentence.”  So it is possible that Mozart’s K.522 composition could have been a musical ode to his pet bird.

(An edited version of this article was published on 10 June 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)