Mi’raj

Have you also experienced this phenomenon, where once a new thought or idea enters your life, it keeps springing up everywhere, or you begin to take notice of it because you’re aware of it now? It certainly happens to me.

For instance, in the initial years of my stint in the UK, I had no need of a vehicle, and therefore had not the slightest interest in cars, and paid no attention to them on the street, or if someone gave me a ride in one. But when necessity demanded that I purchase one, and I acquired a Nissan Micra hatchback (and I got teased a lot by my colleagues for choosing something so nondescript, not something flashier), suddenly as if by magic, I began to ‘find’ them everywhere. I‘d notice them on motorways, in parking lots, in hospital digs.

More recently, I was preparing our concert programme for Child’s Play India Foundation’s annual Christmas concert (10 December 2016, 6.30 pm, Menezes Braganza hall) several weeks ago. We have with us a visiting musician, Juilliard-trained cellist-conductor Avery Waite, and he had sent across via email an assortment of music to choose from, that our Camerata Child’s Play India could play under his baton.

There was the Christmas music, of course, but another piece caught my fancy as well: a work called ‘Miraj’, for string ensemble, by American composer John Meyer. I was intrigued by its title. I know Miraj to be an important railway junction (trainspotters might know it once had all three rail gauges; broad, narrow and metre gauge), but hadn’t imagined that there would be music inspired by it.

It is a short work, and has the following online description: “The exotic and mysterious sounds of this imaginative selection imply flavours of music from India. Unexpected harmonic shifts, interesting chromatic twists, haunting melodies, glissandos, and hand-drumming, all bring this challenging piece to a close with a raucous flourish.”

It is certainly a Western take, almost a stereotypical one, on India. And it seemed apt to have it performed in India under the baton of another American musician. But the reason behind the title still sort of eludes me. I got the Indian reference; but why Miraj in particular?

I decided to look it up. And I learnt that the southern Maharashtra city of Miraj is renowned for its nurturing of Hindustani classical music, with an annual music festival at the dargah of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan (1872-1937), the great classical music singer of the Kirana Gharana.

It is also famous for its rich tradition of handcrafting of Indian musical instruments, especially the sitar, but also the sarod and tanpura. Perhaps this piece is a salute to the rich music tradition of Miraj?

While looking all this up, I again stumbled upon a look-alike, sound-alike word I had come across quite recently, while researching a work played by Marouan Benabdallah, Dia Succari’s ‘Night of Destiny’. While reading about this, I had come across Mi’raj. Israa and Mi’raj are two parts of a night journey by Prophet Mohammed in the year 621 from Mecca to Jerusalem (Israa), and the ascent to the heavens (Mi’raj, which in Arabic literally means ‘ladder’), described in the Quran and in the Hadith literature. The journey is undertaken on a beautiful steed named Buraq. In painting and sculpture, it is represented with a human face, and in the feminine, even though this is not explicitly stated in the sources.

I paid a visit to the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore as there was an exhibition titled ‘Port Cities: Multicultural Emporiums of Asia (1500-1900)’ that had just opened while we were in the city, and I hoped it would give some attention to our own port cities, including Goa, and I was not wrong. But more about that another time.

While finding my way about the museum, I was drawn to the grand piano in a corner of a large room, and I was told that music concerts are regularly hosted in this space. And right next to it, as I was preparing to move on, I found the word ‘Mi’raj’ and stopped short.

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Perched on a pedestal and looking away from the piano was a majestic representation of Buraq in wood (provenance Mindanao, Philippines, early or mid-20th century), “half-mule, half-donkey with wings”. The placard below it informed me that although the Buraq is not uncommon in Islamic art, sculptures of it seemed unique to the Philippines. It added that “it is possible that the flourishing carving industry of religious images for Catholic Filipinos may have encouraged the making of such sculptures.” This cross-pollination of the arts and craftsmanship across faiths is always such a balm, especially at a time when we are constantly submitted to a barrage of news that makes one hate, turn away and stop engaging with the other.

What was the purpose of this sculpture? Was it decorative, to adorn a wealthy home? If so, where in such a home would it have stood? It left one guessing.

And just a few days later, I found a whole article on scroll.in (“From Islamic sculpture to contemporary Delhi: A visual history of Buraq, the Koran’s winged horse”) dedicated to “the enigmatic steed”). And I was interested to find it gave prominent place to an installation ‘Say Hello to the Hauz’ (2010), brainchild of Goa-based designer and film-maker Vishal Rawlley. Situated in the middle of a reservoir (Hauz-i-Shamsi) in Mehrauli, Delhi, the quirky exhibit allows you to ‘dial up’ and therefore light up an incandescent representation of Buraq.

Why Buraq? According to legend, the hauz was built in 1230 AD by Sultan Shamsudin Iltumish, following a dream in which the Prophet commanded him to build a reservoir at a spot marked by Buraq’s hoofprint, and the Sultan found the hoofprint at this spot.

I spoke to Rawlley about his project, and it is such a heartwarming example of art with a social purpose. He used to live next to the Hauz-i-Shamsi, and wanted to do something to change the appalling condition it then was in, and attract positive attention to it. His Buraq exhibit was on at the Hauz for two whole years and generated a lot of excitement not just locally but across the world, with people from overseas calling and skyping in to light up the installation. Even now,the area is considerably cleaner and well-maintained, and popular with locals as a place of relaxation and recreation.

Buraq unsurprisingly lends her name to two airlines, in Libya and Indonesia. The ‘Miraj’ work by Richard Meyer may have nothing to do with Mi’raj and Buraq, but it will certainly take you on a flighty musical adventure. Fasten your seatbelts!

(An edited version of this article was published on 4 December 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

O My Beloved Daddy

Some weeks ago I wrote in this column about Patricia Rozario’s historic concert at the reopening of Mumbai’s Royal Opera House last month.

Her concert programme had included the soprano aria ‘O mio babbino caro’ (O My Beloved Father) from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi. It is an aria that is in the repertoire of Rozario’s protégée Joanne Marie D’Mello as well. Some of you will remember hearing her sing it at the Art Chamber Calangute last year.

Sadly I missed Rozario’s recent performance in Goa as my family already had holiday plans which could not be altered by then. Although the destination was Singapore with a lot of kiddie-centred activities on the itinerary for our son and his cousin of the same age, I was keen that we devote just a little time experiencing some of Singapore’s rich cultural fare as well. My son is now seven, and had not yet heard a symphony orchestra in full force in a purpose-built concert venue, and a date with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra seemed the perfect remedy to this.

With a little internet homework, we found to our delight that there was a scheduled concert appropriate for children exactly during the days of our visit. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that it would be conducted by Jason Lai, who had conducted ‘my’ orchestra in my London years, the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra at St. James’ Piccadilly. Lai has now risen to the post of Associate Conductor of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. He has literally gotten very far in a very short time.

The concert was part of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s Discovering Music! series. Billed as “suitable for ages 5 and above”, it was one of a trio of concerts “exploring how composers use stories, plays and poems as an inspiration to write great music. From Shakespeare’s plays to Wagner’s music dramas, and Tchaikovsky’s ballets to Stravinsky’s colourful ballets based on folk tales, feast your ears on some incredible music!”

The plug worked, as the Victoria Concert Hall was quite full of little children accompanied by adults. I spoke to one parent of a four- and a six-year old, and this wasn’t even their first concert.

This concert was titled “The World’s a Stage: The Drama of Opera”, with a child-friendly start time of 4 pm on a Sunday. I must confess I was a little sceptical of the appropriateness of the fare for little children, especially when I saw on the programme that the concert would open with music from Richard Wagner, the Prelude and Liebestod from his opera Tristan und Isolde, no less.

But I needn’t have worried. Jason Lai emerged on stage with a cheery greeting, and explained the opera synopsis, the emotion in the music, what to “look out for” or hear in the music that would unfold, in such a casual and candid manner that children and adults alike were sitting up in their seats. His comparison of the western classical music genre of opera to Korean television soap operas elicited knowing laughter from the house, and I thought to myself how well the analogy applied to Bollywood (well, some of it) as well: The plotlines may be far-fetched and the emotions over-the-top, and one doesn’t even need to understand every last word for the meaning to come through nevertheless, especially through the music. Just as Raj Kapoor’s Hindi films were a craze in the former USSR, loved by people who didn’t understand the language at all, opera can be similarly appreciated by audiences worldwide if only given half a chance.

And so it was that I heard ‘O mio babbino caro’ one more time in a span of a few weeks, in a city in another part of the world, sung this time by the Chinese soprano Cherie Tse, and with the orchestral forces written for the aria.

If anyone ever wants an easy introduction to opera, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi is just the ticket. Just around an hour long, it draws you in right into the deep end from the very start. The final part of Puccini’s triptych (Il Trittico) of short one-act operas, Gianni Schicchi offers comic relief from the other two.

There are many versions out there well worth a watch and listen. I’d recommend Antonio Pappano’s 2011 recording for BBC Four at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, or Riccardo Chailly with the orchestra and chorus of the Teatro alla Scala Milan, both accessible via YouTube.

Without spoiling it for those of you who’d like to take in the whole opera: It is a theatrical farce, with Florence as its location setting. A wealthy miser Buoso Donati has died, and although his relatives have gathered ostensibly to mourn his passing, they are scavengers looking to see what he left each of them in his will. When they find the document and realise that he has left it all to the monks at the nearby monastery, they are furious. They quickly come to the conclusion that only local confidence trickster Gianni Schicchi can come to their rescue. But wily as he is, how can even he get a dead man to change his will? Ah, now that would be telling. Watch the opera to find out.

It is a non-stop riot, with very imaginative use of score-writing (for instance, Puccini uses the falling figure in the very opening motif to mimic the hypocritical weeping of the relatives around Bonati’s death-bed) throughout.

But right in the middle of all the commotion and madness, the action seems to abruptly stop for the breathtakingly beautiful aria. It is sung by Lauretta, Schicchi’s daughter, to her father. Gianni Schicchi is about to walk away in a huff after being told rudely by one relative, Zita, to “be off”. But his daughter Lauretta is in love with Zita’s nephew Rinuccio, and begs her father to let her be with the man she loves.

The aria makes several Florentine references: she wants to go to Porta Rossa to buy the ring, and threatens to jump off the Ponte Vecchio and throw herself into the river Arno if her father doesn’t relent.

And relent he does, and he resourcefully brings the opera to a grand conclusion. Does everyone live happily ever after? Again, that would be telling.

The aria entered into popular culture when Rowan Atkinson mimed and lip-synced it in Mr. Bean’s Holiday. It also is the main theme in the 1985 James Ivory film “A Room with a View”, sung by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.

I’ll leave you with Ekaterina Siurina singing it in the 2011 Covent Garden production:

Although out of context, I thought of writing about it this Sunday as it happens to be my own father’s birthday today, and this is a little dedication to him. He would have been 88 today.

(An edited version of this article was published on 27 November 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Much Ado about Nothing

By the time you read this, a group of Shakespeare enthusiasts called the Understudies (featuring Karan Bhagat, Megha Gulati, David Stanton and I) will have performed excerpts from his plays (‘Bardy Bits’ as Karan christened the event) at Museum of Goa Pilerne to commemorate the Bard’s 400th death anniversary. The selection was an eclectic mix of histories, tragedies and comedies from Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

It has been such a thrilling experience, immersing ourselves in the wit, the punning humour, the wickedly intelligent verse of Shakespeare’s writing, and one has to marvel at his insightful grasp of psychology and the human condition. I really wish we had read more Shakespeare at school and college. I remember having studied just two pithy extracts from Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice in our English syllabus in secondary and higher secondary school.

The comedic excerpt at our event was taken from one of his finest, Love’s Labour’s Won, better known as Much Ado about Nothing, written in the middle of Shakespeare’s career, between 1598 and 1599.

The “nothing” in the title is believed to be a triple entendre, meaning not only “nothing” but also “noting” (a homophone in Shakespeare’s day to “nothing”, with “noting” meaning overhearing, rumour, scandal and gossip) and the bawdy Elizabethan slang for “vagina” (derived from the pun of a woman having “nothing” between her legs, or “an O-thing”).

Although like most Shakespeare plays there are several main characters and even more peripheral ones, much of the witty back-and-forth exchanges occur between Beatrice and Benedick, and are today considered the leading roles of the play. King Charles II even wrote ‘Benedick and Beatrice’ beside the title of the play in his copy of the Second Folio.

The French composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) understood this as well, giving his opera comique based on Much Ado about Nothing the title ‘Béatrice et Bénédict’.

Berlioz got a double whammy when he was introduced to Shakespeare in 1827 in Paris. A company of English actors gave a series of performances of Shakespeare plays at the Odéon theatre. Among the cast was an Irish-born actress named Harriet Simpson, who played Ophelia and Juliet in Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet respectively. He was instantly smitten by Shakespeare and infatuated by Simpson, raising the curtain on what he himself called “the greatest drama of my life.” It is striking that the performances were in English, which Berlioz did not understand at all, yet he still fell under the spell of the verse, prose and drama.

From then on, he constantly read Shakespeare, often aloud if he had company, and could connect personal experiences and parallels with characters from the plays.

His Shakespeare-inspired musical compositions are many: his 1831 overture King Lear (Le roi Lear) and his composition Lélio for orchestra, chorus, solo voices and spoken text which features a fantasy on The Tempest; the symphony Roméo et Juliette (1839), his 1849 choral work Tristia has two scenes from Hamlet, the death of Ophelia and the funeral march from the final scene (La mort d’Ophélie; Marche funèbre pour la dernière scène d’Hamlet); but his biggest work is ‘Béatrice et Bénédict’, which had a gestation period of almost three decades before it was staged in 1862.

Berlioz himself wrote the French libretto to the opera, staying closely to Shakespeare’s text. He was “in pain and impatient for death” at the time of completing the opera, suffering from a condition then termed as “intestinal neuralgia”, which he endured in the last decade of his life. But you wouldn’t guess it from the exuberance of the music.

The verbal sparring between Béatrice and Bénédict takes the form of a soprano-tenor duo, while an allegretto trio showcases the “conspiratorial humour” of Don Pedro, Claudio and Bénédict (incidentally we used this excerpt in our ‘Bardy bits’ event) where the latter swears never to marry.

The overture is a lot of fun both to play and to listen to. It wittily depicts in the music the back-and-forth, tit-for-tat exchanges between Béatrice and Bénédict, and makes several references to the music that unfolds later in the opera.

If the pattern of boy-girl trading insults initially, only to discover that they have feelings for each other, with a happily-ever-after ending sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve encountered this time and again in Hindi films. Indeed the 2001 comedy-drama hit film Dil Chahta Hai is believed to be based (very loosely) around Much Ado about Nothing. Preity Zinta-Aamir Khan (Shalini-Aakash) are the modern-day Beatrice- Benedick counterpart in the film.

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In the Sydney Australia sequence, when Shalini enters the frame, there is a sailboat to the right named ‘Much Ado’. When she takes Aakash to the Sydney opera (the ‘play-within-a-play’, a device commonly used by Shakespeare himself), it is another Shakespeare-inspired work being staged, Troilus and Cressida. Although if one looks it up, the opera is alleged to be English composer William Walton’s work, I am not so sure. I could be mistaken, of course, but the music doesn’t seem to bear his mark, and the libretto is being sung in French, not English. And Walton based his opera on Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde, not the Shakespeare play. Be that as it may, the scene is in some ways central to the film, as this is when Aakash realises that Shalini is the love of his life.

If only Berlioz’ own real-life “greatest drama” had nearly such a happy ending, though. From the moment he set eyes on Harriet Simpson, he would besiege her hotel room with love letters. His Symphonie Fantastique was inspired by his obsession with her, and the concept of the idée fixe entered his musical writing as well. The couple did marry, a good six years later, despite neither being fluent in the other’s language. But living together was very different from worshipping Simpson from afar, as Berlioz would soon realise. They were evenly matched but in the wrong way: both were hot-headed and prone to outbursts of temper. Simpson took comfort in alcohol after her acting career ebbed away, and eventually over two stormy decades later, the couple separated, although Berlioz continued to support Harriet financially for the rest of her life.

(An edited version of this article was published on 20 November 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Julian Clef, Poet of the Piano

Julian Clef has a quirky sense of humour. You perhaps wouldn’t guess it from his onstage presence, or even if you met him backstage. But a short video filmed by him “Classical Musician: Dream vs Reality” has been picked up and shared by the Facebook page of Classic FM, the most popular classical music radio channel in the United Kingdom.

The video clip has deservedly gone viral. It is a sardonic comment on the yawning gap between the standard of living classical musicians aspire to, deserve even, and the stark reality of their everyday existence. I must remember to ask him how he and his two friends (also musicians, one a fellow pianist, the other a violinist, and both, like Julian, graduates of the Royal Northern College of Music Manchester) managed to commandeer a number 36 London double-decker bus to create this hilarious two-minute film.

Those of you who attended Clef’s performance at the Kala Academy on 17 October will agree that he deserves all the acclaim life can possibly shower upon him.

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It is a measure of the broad expanse of repertoire that this twenty-something pianist already has “under the fingers” as it were, that even at very short notice of barely about a week, he was able to offer a formidable programme that in fact had to be shortened for time constraints. He flew in directly from morning rehearsal with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra, and with very little rehearsal time, played the concert in Goa the same evening.

Clef began his recital with Brahms’ Intermezzo in E flat major, Opus 117, no. 1. The three Opus 117 Intermezzi, all in three-part form, are among Brahms’ last compositions. The first Intermezzo is prefaced by the lyrics of a Scottish lullaby “Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament”: “Baloo, my babe, lie still and sleep; It grieves me sore to see thee weep.”Brahms poignantly referred to some of his late pieces as ‘the cradle songs of my sorrows.’ Clef played this solemnly but with intimacy.

Next we heard six of Scriabin’s 24 Preludes Opus 11. Pianist Simon Nicholls and Scriabin expert termed the composer ‘a musical Fabergé’, and Clef’s playing of these preludes made us understand what he meant. Clef gave us a glimpse of the poetry within the miniature masterpieces. If there is one thing Clef does not do (and Heaven be praised for this), his playing is never mere technical showmanship.

But some drama and virtuosity were necessary (and Clef rose brilliantly to this occasion) in the Preludes (no. 1 to 5) of Rachmaninoff’s Ten Preludes, Opus 23. Prelude 4 was an oasis of calm before the relentless energy of No. 5 was unleashed.

Clef is partial to the jazz-style piano compositions of Nikolai Girshevich Kapustin (born 1937), and his Reverie & Intermezzo (etudes 2 & 7) from 8 Concert Etudes, Opus 40 were a refreshing palate-cleanser. Reverie, despite its dreamy title, had an air of perpetual motion about it, while Intermezzo could have been the soundtrack to a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers pas de deux. One could almost see “jazz hands” as it concluded with a flourish.

The second half began in similar vein, with George Gershwin’s 3 Preludes. They ooze New York from every pore, and were in fact first performed by Gershwin in that city’s Roosevelt Hotel in 1926. One hears echoes of his 1924 composition Rhapsody in Blue in the first Prelude.

The final segment of the programme was given over to Chopin, with at first his Etudes Opus 10, numbers 3 and 7, and then his Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor, opus 35 ‘Funeral March’. Chopin himself was often called ‘Poet of the Piano’, and some might think it too lavish to apply this title to Clef. But those who heard him play especially Chopin that evening would probably agree with me.

The third etude from Chopin’s opus 10 has a much-loved, familiar tune. Chopin himself is believed to have said of this Etude: “In all my life, I have never again been able to find such a beautiful melody.” But is not easy to play: The right hand has to have a lyrical, rubato quality while also contributing to the accompaniment. It is termed a “tone poem for piano”, and Clef breathed life into the Kala Steinway piano, making the instrument “sing” in an intimate way it rarely gets an opportunity to. Etude 7 was another ‘perpetuo mobile’ piece, with a singing line in both hands.

But the pièce de resistance in the whole programme for me was the last and longest work in the programme, Chopin’s mighty second Sonata. Here we heard Clef the colourist at his best; there are brief contemplative episodes in the otherwise stormy Scherzo and particularly in the Lento Funeral March whose melodic lines Clef shaped and spun with such beauty and sensitivity and dynamic control that it brought tears to the eyes. I later met another member of the public who told me this was her experience as well at the same point, so it wasn’t just me. The great Chopin himself is believed to frequently have this effect on his audiences through his playing and improvisation. Comparisons are odious, but I will say this: the Kala Steinway has hardly been played by a pianist with as much magisterial technique and with as much poetic lyricism, and despite all the abundance of these gifts with as much humility and honesty as Julian Clef. The instrument pines for his return, which we hope will be soon.

Chopin graced the encore as well, with an elegant offering by Clef of his Minute waltz (Waltz in D flat major, Opus 64, no. 1).

(An edited version of this article was published on 20 November 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

We will remember you forever, Fr. Bismarque Dias

A whole generation of Americans remember precisely where they were and what they were doing when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and decades later, Britons had this same experience with the tragic death of Princess Diana in a car accident in 1997.

Psychologists term this a ‘flashbulb memory’ i.e. “an especially vivid image that seems to be frozen in memory in times of emotionally significant personal or public events.” Psychologists Dennis Coon and John O. Mitterer cover this at length in the chapter ‘Memory’ of their textbook ‘Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behaviour’. They go on to say that “Some memories may go beyond flashbulb clarity and become so intense that they may haunt a person for years.”

This is certainly true for me, and must be so for most of you when it comes to the tragic brutal death of Fr. Bismarque Dias exactly a year ago. Just thinking about it takes me back to those awful moments and hours after he was first reported missing. I tried calling the number I had stored on my phone but was getting no response. Frantic calls to his acquaintances yielded nothing. That night, my family offered a litany of Hail Marys and an emotional appeal to Her to bring him back safe and sound. But even then, there was still a glimmer of hope that he would eventually turn up unscathed and laugh away everyone’s needless anxiety. And one clung on to that hope for dear life, but the undercurrent of unease persisted.

The news broke the following morning, after a restless night. I received the following SMS at 0958 hours on 7 November 2015 from a mutual acquaintance: “Body of environmental activist Fr. Bismarque Dias found in water near sluice gate at St. Estevam where his belongings were found yesterday.” I stared at the phone screen, numb with shock and disbelief. How does one process such news, received so innocuously, so mundanely? This is the unfortunate “flashbulb memory” that most of us, at various times and in various ways, would have experienced last year. His death was a cataclysmic blow to Goa, to all the good causes that he stood for and for which he had fought so fearlessly and tirelessly.

The powers-that-be would have us believe his death was an unfortunate accident, a night swim gone wrong. But I am not convinced, and I believe I have good reason not to buy this theory. There are just too many loose ends, too many facets of the case that just do not add up, so much evidence that actually contradicts the “accident” hypothesis. The bungling of the investigative process and the heavy-handed suppression by the government machinery of a peaceful protest in Panjim that month only add fuel to the suspicion of a cover-up, an attempt to shield the guilty.

Had Fr. Bismarque been alive today, he would certainly have been participating in the electoral process as a candidate for the 2017 elections, either as an independent or perhaps for the Aam Aadmi Party. I know it is conjecture on my part, but what I do know is that he would have supported any political initiative that he believed would favourably change the way Goa has been ruled in the last few decades, and that would safeguard Goa’s precious, fragile, dwindling environment for future generations.

Sceptics have questioned why he entered the political fray back in 2012. Didn’t he know that politics is a numbers game, that he was pitted against political heavyweights, that it is not easy to “fight the system”? But although Fr. Bismarque did not win the Cumbarjua seat, one can view the result in two ways. The jaded, smug view, which even some of his genuine well-wishers took, was “I-told-you-so”; those who had predicted he would lose were, whether they admitted it to themselves or not, glad to be proven right. But viewed another way, the election result also rocked the boat. Although he lost, the vote tally in his favour was not insignificant, bearing in mind he was a first-time candidate. If he would garner such a margin the first time round, what could he have achieved in 2017? I think this must have unnerved his political rivals.

Nevertheless, his legacy should not be allowed to die. Fr. Bismarque was an inspiration to me, for his optimism and positivity despite all the portents of doom and gloom on the political and environmental fronts in Goa. He firmly believed in the democratic process, that politics need not be a dirty game if good, honest citizens entered the fray, if they made their voice heard through the ballot box and through activism. He led by example in fearlessly challenging corruption and irregularities and disastrous planning policies. His optimism rubbed off on everyone who knew him, and I am grateful to him for this gift of Hope. With his death, some of that optimism and hope died as well, at least for me, but we have to get it back again somehow.

Many scoffed at his Kindness Manifesto as too philosophical, as empty platitudes out of sync with on-the-ground issues. But he was driving at something much deeper, much more revolutionary, which went to the core of our collective mindset. In his Manifesto, rather than another predictable list of promises, he was asking us to change, to treat each other, all living beings and the environment with Kindness. He asked us to pledge to “Be Kindness, live Kindness; to be Kind to ourselves, to others and to the environment.”

This strong belief in our inherent limitless capacity for Goodness and Kindness, is something for which I will always remember Fr. Bismarque. And every time I think of him, I shall try to renew the pledge I made during his Cumbarjua trail. If more of us also do this, his legacy will live on.

This is the Festival of Light. Last year, an inspirational Light was cruelly snuffed out and snatched from us. But we can each be those lights, and spread the light. Watching from above, this would gladden Fr. Bismarque’s soul more than anything else.

(An edited version of this article was published on 06 November 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Diamond in the Tiara

When I left India for the UK in 1998, I had no computer or internet access. I was in London and knew that the famed Bombay-born soprano Patricia Rozario was also in the city, but the best I could do to increase my chances of hearing her was through the media. Goan acquaintances would drop her name and airily say “We must have you over for tea with her”, but it never happened.

Nevertheless, I heard her at the BBC Proms festival at London’s Royal Albert Hall just the following year; it was the Proms premiere of Sir John Tavener’s ‘Eternity’s Sunrise’. If I remember correctly, Rozario was clad in a crisp light sky-blue sari, alongside the Academy of Ancient Music, the London Philharmonic and Kurt Masur. I was in the arena (where for only 3 pounds then, one could stand and listen to the whole concert), just three rows of people away from her. When she took her bow to great cheers of appreciation from the audience, and someone near me said “Did you know she’s from India?” I couldn’t resist adding with some pride, “She’s from Goa, my hometown!”

In the years that followed, I either attended or heard on the radio (if I had evening on-call and couldn’t swap duties) her subsequent Proms performances in 2000, 2001, 2004 and 2008.

But I only actually met Patricia Rozario in September 2003. I was working in Ashford, Kent, and Canterbury was within driving distance, and one of my favourite haunts. She was singing an all-Tavener programme, the world premiere of his Supernatural Songs, quite appropriately and atmospherically at Canterbury Cathedral, with the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Nicholas Cleobury. It was a truly sublime experience.

Little did I then even suspect that it would be the start of a beautiful friendship that persists to this day. But although I count her as a friend, every time I am in her presence, I’m aware that I am in the presence of true greatness and a rare instrument even though she is so unassuming and approachable, sometimes to a fault.

Let me digress now to my earlier years, when Bombay (today Mumbai) appealed to us like a magnet. Just as everyone descends upon Goa on the slightest pretext for a break, the allure of the metropolis was irresistible, and any excuse would do to “go to Bombay”. My base then was Chembur, and I often needed to go to “town”, either for orchestra rehearsals or concerts or “just like that”. And the BEST 92 Ltd took you en route past Girgaon and Charni Road, and the bus conductor would yell “Opera House”, and I’d try to get a passing glimpse of the empty shell of the dilapidated yet proud edifice.

What has one to do with the other? The stars recently aligned to gloriously bring them together. I joyfully accepted an eleventh-hour commission from Opera Now magazine, (“the most influential opera magazine in the world”) to cover the grand reopening of Mumbai’s Royal Opera House, painstakingly restored in loving detail after 23 years.

P1610613 Photo credit Luis Dias

The prospect of actually hearing music in that space compelled me to clear my schedule. And who would be the star act of the evening? Does one even need to ask? The greatest western classical diva ever to emerge from Indian soil, and with deep roots in Mumbai as well as Goa, Patricia Rozario. It was a logical choice. No-one else could have been more appropriate.

It is fair to assume that the reopening was scheduled with Rozario as its centrepiece, overshadowing even the glittering Mumbai film festival opening at the venue the previous night.

The 574-capacity auditorium was literally filled to the rafters with Mumbai’s music cognoscenti, critics, journalists, theatre personalities and other dignitaries that included the owners, the royal couple of Gondal, Maharaja Jyotendrasinhji Jadeja and Maharani Kumud Kumari Jadeja. But a hush descended on the audience when Patricia Rozario and husband and accompanist Mark Troop walked onto the stage.

P1610708

And so the magic began. It was only fitting that Rozario begin with Baroque opera in a newly-reopened Baroque-style opera house: the arioso ‘Care selve’ (‘O lovely woods’) from Handel’s pastoral opera Atalanta. Handel wrote the opera in 1736 for the marriage celebrations of the eldest son of King George II; and two centuries and three King Georges later, his descendant George V inaugurated the Royal Opera House in Bombay in 1911. And here we were, over a century later, in the same space. History was being made.

This is a challenging work to begin any programme, but Rozario’s messa di voce in the very opening phrase was truly breath-taking, and her shaping of the melodic line was utterly elegant, hitting the high notes with precision and quiet grace.

The rest of the programme showcased her broad repertoire with contrasts of period, style, language (Italian, German, French, Portuguese and English) and mood. Both the Puccini arias (Doretta’s aria ‘Ch’il bel sogno’ from ‘La Rondine’; and Musetta’s waltz ‘Quando m’en vo’ from ‘La Bohème’) were sung with much feeling and sensitivity, again with superlative placing of those ringing top notes.

In the Schubert Lied (‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’), the piano accompaniment mimics the spinning-wheel (right hand) and foot-treadle (left hand), while Gretchen gives vent to her heartache over Faust. We also heard Poulenc’s ‘Les Chemins d’Amour’; ‘Depuis le Jour’ from Charpentier’s opera ‘Louise’; and ‘Canção do Marinheiro’ by Villa Lobos.

But the show-stoppers were sung in English: ‘My Wedding’ from Jonathan Dove’s opera ‘the Enchanted Pig’ and ‘Summertime’ from Gershwin’s opera ‘Porgy and Bess’. And the encore? Another Puccini favourite, ‘O mio babbino caro’ from ‘Gianni Schicchi’.

As Rozario sang the Dove aria about the tiara and its sparkle, I looked at the opulent setting and realised that this was the city’s new tiara, all buffed up and polished; but Mumbai-born Rozario herself was the glittering diamond right in the centre of it. She gave it its sparkle that night more than anything else.

The reopening of the Opera House bodes well for music, specifically for opera, in India. And it gives a purpose-built stage for Rozario’s Giving Voice to India initiative, whose mission statement is “to set up opportunities for Indian singers to perform, as soloists, in choirs, in operas.” Rozario is the only Indian-origin western classical musician of her stature to consistently make return visits and work to build a tangible infrastructure in India, from grass-roots upward.

Many of you would have attended their all-Indian production of Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’ at the Kala Academy. It would have been so apt to have it staged at the Opera House. One can envisage staged productions of Baroque and Classical opera by visiting and by home-grown troupes here. To quote the title of the Puccini aria: Che bel sogno! What beautiful dream!

(An edited version of this article was published on 30 October 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Building a Future – III

This is perhaps the final, but in some ways the most crucial instalment of spin-off articles following upon Karl Lutchmayer’s insightful article “The Way Forward” in the October issue of NCPA Mumbai’s ON Stage magazine. It addresses the topic of music pedagogy.

Lutchmayer starts this segment of his article by asking us this question: “Did you know that there are possibly fewer than 50 teachers in the whole of India who have a music degree?” To put this into context, he continues: “That’s for over 1.3 billion people.”

CPIF Violins rehearsal

This is indeed a fact not too well-known beyond the circle of the stakeholders in music education in India. A shortage of this degree would have been deemed a crisis in any other profession. “It would be simply unthinkable to employ someone in England who didn’t have a [music] degree”, says Lutchmayer. “How can we possibly expect to have wonderful students if we do not have trained teachers?” How indeed.

This is a realisation we came to grips with at the very genesis of Child’s Play India Foundation. If we truly want to build a sound, robust music pedagogical tradition in India, we have to start from scratch. What does this mean? Lutchmayer asks us to look to the Russians for a template: “The only solution, as the Russians realised, is to invest in importing teachers wholesale from other countries.” It is obviously not a small undertaking on account of its financial implications, but to quote Lutchmayer again, “It will cost dearly in early years, but as Russia found out, in terms of national pride and international visibility, will pay back richly.”

If one examines the today-legendary “Russian school of violin playing”, for example, one will be able to trace it back to a long tradition of prominent foreign musicians working in Russia. Famous European violinists such as Pierre Rode, Louis Spohr, Charles de Bériot, Henri Vieuxtemps, Heinrich Ernst and Henry Schradieck, Henryk Wieniawski and Leopold Auer all spent some time working in Russia.

India needs to do in the 21st century what Russia did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries stretching into the last century. India has perhaps never been in a better position to achieve this, and perhaps such an alignment of the stars might not come again for a long time.

Much has been said and written about India’s economic boom, now apparently surpassing China. As Nandan Nilekani explains in his book “Imagining India: the Idea of a Renewed Nation”, which was also the basis of his brilliant lecture so many of us attended at the D.D. Kosambi lecture series a few years ago, India is just beginning to experience its “demographic dividend”. This refers to a period – usually 20 to 30 years – when fertility rates fall due to significant reductions in child and infant mortality rates. It also means that the share of the working-age population (15 to 64) is larger than the non-working-age share of the population (14 and younger, and 65 and older). Although the focus of the discussion centred on economic gain, it offers huge opportunities for building infrastructure in all fields, including the arts, and therefore, music. Add to this the economic slump in the western world, the shutting down of several orchestras and other music institutions and the general shrinkage of patronage to the arts, Brexit, and we find there is no dearth of highly qualified music professionals and teachers actively seeking work in parts of the world they wouldn’t have considered before, such as India.

Investing in music pedagogy now would be a sound investment. As Lutchmayer argues, it would “raise standards and competition in the marketplace, but would require long-term planning, vision, and, deep pockets.” All the three are crucial; investment without a comprehensive long-term vision would be a waste.

This is why Lutchmayer thinks (and I am inclined to agree) that our government is an inappropriate investor: “Should the government be involved? Personally, my experience, both historical and contemporary, is that governments seldom offer long-term vision and support in the way that a foundation with a large corpus can.” Furthermore, he acknowledges that music would obviously not be a priority for the government “in a country where a clean and ample water source, sewerage, food and affordable medical care are not always available to significant parts of the population.”

But the government could help in other ways, he says, “by simply lowering the earning requirements for incoming music teachers and abolishing some of the red tape that currently stifles private entrepreneurship in the field.”

This is a major hurdle that Child’s Play India Foundation faces in employing foreign music teachers, even though it would surprise many to know just how many highly competent, motivated and qualified professionals earnestly would like to establish themselves in India, and how many email queries we field almost on a daily basis. For instance, it is our objective to address the lower strings crisis, specifically cello in India. Importing even one cello teacher would help not only with the instruction of our children, but in the longer term would help create a cohort of teachers and achieve a multiplier effect.

Furthermore, these professionals would also be able to play concerts, and enrich the cultural life of their city (and further afield if they went on tour) immeasurably, something just as important as teaching to musical development in a community.

But Government of India regulations stipulate that “the foreign national being sponsored for employment in any sector should draw a salary in excess of US $ 25,000 per annum.” It makes concessions for ethnic cooks, language teachers (other than English language teachers)/translators and embassy staff etc, but not for music teachers.

US $ 25,000 translates to over 16 lakh Indian rupees per annum, or over a lakh a month. It is proving very difficult to find Indian corporate sponsorship for such an amount. It is hard enough to explain to CEOs and donors why a foreign music teacher is needed in the first place, and when this steep price tag is then mentioned, smelling salts are often necessary.

The irony is that music professionals are willing to relocate here for less than half this amount, but unless the government regulations change, we are at an impasse.

Another potential source is foreign donations, but the FCRA (Foreign Currency Regulations Act) permission for this is even more notoriously difficult to come by.

If this can be resolved, either by the government relaxing its regulation or by actually finding the sponsorship (let’s face it, even this sum pales in comparison to the amount spent by football teams and premier leagues in importing star sportsmen), then India would really be on the road to building a robust pedagogical tradition. As Lutchmayer says in his closing paragraph, “Ultimately, if India wants to have a world-class musical life, it needs investment in that musical life.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 23 October 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Yet Another Side of Bob Dylan?

I was not yet born when American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan’s epic albums “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” (1963) and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (1964) burst upon the music scene and captured the world’s imagination. But I remember growing up to those songs in 1970s Goa.

The beauty of his songs lay in their simplicity. With no frills at all, with just his guitar and harmonica backing his vocal line, they were searingly honest, unpretentious and direct. The chord progressions were simple, the verses ballad-like. You could literally just pick up a guitar and learn them in a few minutes. Unlike his rock star peers, he was a wandering minstrel, a troubadour. And like those itinerant musicians of yore, he sang, sometimes in riddles, but about contemporary issues that were raging. And that seemed to appeal to his generation, jaded as they were by the diet of lies and subterfuge by their own government, and in America in particular that was reeling under protests over civil rights, and a mounting death and casualty toll (high enough on the American side, but of genocidal proportions on the ‘other’ side, civilian and military) in a disastrous Vietnam war to which there seemed no end in sight at the time. Is it any wonder that his songs became the anthems of that age, almost the soundtrack to both, the civil rights and anti-war movements?

One of his most iconic songs “Blowin’ in the Wind” (from his 1963 album) even made it into our hymn books and church services. And his 1964 title track “The Times They Are A-Changin’” is thought by many to have at least some of its lyrics inspired by the Bible. The lines in the final verse “The order is rapidly fadin’/ And the first one now/ Will later be last/ For the times they are a-changin’” resemble closely Matthew 20:16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Numerologists will probably find some significance in the fact that 2016 is the year in which Dylan gets perhaps the crowning accolade of a lifetime, the Nobel Prize for Literature. Yes, not for Peace, but for Literature. And he makes history in being the first songwriter ever to receive such an honour. The justification? It is in acknowledgment of his “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

For all my admiration of his music and lyrics, I must confess to having mixed feelings on receiving the news. But first let us examine the case for the proposition that he well deserves a Literature Nobel. One could argue, as Sean O’Hagan has done in the Guardian (Sunday 16 October 2016), that it is his personal voyage of discovery as a songwriter that is being lauded through the Literature Prize, having stretched the genre –“and himself” in the words of O’Hagan- “almost to breaking point”.

This personal voyage unsurprisingly was not without controversy. Born Robert Allen Zimmermann (Jewish name Shabtai Zisl ben Avraham) to Russian Jewish parents, and whose grandparents had fled to the US from the 1905 anti-Semitic pogroms in Odessa in the erstwhile Russian empire, he changed his name to Bob Dylan in the late 1950s. His explanation was enigmatic: “You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”

Why Dylan? Although in his memoir he gave credit to the influence of the poetry of Dylan Thomas, he also told biographer Robert Shelton, “Straighten out in your book that I did not take my name from Dylan Thomas. Dylan Thomas’s poetry is for people that aren’t really satisfied in their bed, for people who dig masculine romance.” 

In the late 1970s, Dylan embraced the ‘born again’ sect of Christianity, mystifying and alienating some of his fans and contemporary musicians. But perhaps it was a logical culmination of a journey that had begun much earlier. Perhaps I am reading too much into his lyrics, but what is one to make of “I dreamed I saw Saint Augustine” from his 1967 album “John Wesley Harding”?

But let us return to the current issue of the Nobel Prize for Literature award for the first time to a songwriter. Why now, and why Dylan? If the yardstick was creating “new poetic expression within the great American song tradition”, why did Cole Porter or Irving Berlin not qualify in their time? Or Billie Holiday or Nina Simone? And if for the social activist content of the lyrics, why not Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez?

Furthermore, as Anna North wrote in her op-ed “Why Bob Dylan shouldn’t have gotten a Nobel” in the New York Times (13 October 2016), one could take the view that by awarding the prize to Dylan, “the Nobel committee is choosing not to award it to a writer, and that is a disappointing choice.” Not everyone would agree with this, of course. Because, aren’t lyricists writers too? But if one eyeballs the honours list of Nobel laureates for Literature since the inception of the award in 1901, I find it hard to put Dylan’s lyrics, heartfelt and soul-stirring as they might be, up there with the writing of Rabindranath Tagore, Romain Rolland, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Mann, Pearl Buck, Herman Hesse, André Gide, T. S. Eliot, Bertrand Russell, Ernest Hemingway, Boris Pasternak, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Octavio Paz, Toni Morrison, Seamus Heaney, Günter Grass, V S. Naipaul, Harold Pinter, or Orhan Pamuk, who in fact I am reading right now. Perhaps it is a reflection of my own immaturity or ignorance, and this award has certainly spurred me to pay closer attention to Dylan’s lyrics.

Ms North makes the point that apart from significantly boosting the sales of literary works, far more importantly the Nobel Literature award sends out a powerful message that “fiction and poetry still matter, that they are crucial human endeavors worthy of international recognition.”

There already are platforms for recognition of songwriting (the Grammy awards, for example). Bob Dylan is already celebrated in his own field, so to me, awarding a Nobel Prize for Literature to him is overkill, and bizarrely generous. I find it hard to believe that there were no contenders among poets and writers around the world to pip him to the post. Perhaps the awarding committee wanted to shed its stuffy image and appeal to a younger audience. And if one puts Dylan’s winning of the Nobel Literature prize in perspective, and contrasts this with the wisdom of choice in awarding the Nobel Peace Prize in the last few decades in some cases, for example, then yes, Bob Dylan is far, far away the more deserving.

(An edited version of this article was published on 22 October 2016 in Goan Observer, Goa India)

Building a Future -II

 

In last weekend’s column I discussed Karl Lutchmayer’s thoughtful article “The Way Forward” in the October issue of the NCPA’s ON Stage magazine.

Lutchmayer begins by giving us a little historical background to the evolution of patronage for music in Europe, and pointing out the ‘ringing bells’, the similarities between the factors that brought about the democratisation and extension of the reach of classical music in 18th– and 19th– century Europe and England, and in 21st-century India. Lutchmayer asks “Why not Mumbai?”, but this question could well apply to Goa, and indeed to the rest of the country.

I would like to continue the discussion of concerts from the last weekend. I had discussed the logistics of organising live concerts, the financial costs involved, choice of venues and the need for community support in various forms, not just financial.

Lutchmayer makes another important point when he says “India has to find ways of promoting performances by as many Indian performers as possible.” This is something that Child’s Play India Foundation believes as well; performance opportunities have to go hand-in-hand with music education. Lutchmayer continues: “Above all, far more opportunity must be given to young musicians at all levels to gain experience at performing.” The young Indian musicians he meets at auditions have hardly played a few concerts in their entire lives, while “the international students against which they compete will have played in public 10-20 times a year for many years.”

This is why in addition to offering our children performance opportunities at least twice a year at our monsoon and Christmas concerts, we endeavour to widen the platform even further. Since its inception in 2013, Camerata Child’s Play India has offered a platform not only to young musicians in the community for ensemble playing, but offered solo opportunities to many of them as well. Ashley Rego and Maria Sancha Pereira played the much-loved Bach Concerto for two violins (D minor BWV 1043) under the baton of Pheroze Mistri at Caritas St. Inez in June 2013. Ashley also played the hauntingly beautiful John Williams theme from Schindler’s List at that concert. Joanne D’Mello and Andrea Fernandes, visiting home from Europe kindly contributed to our Kala Academy concert in August 2013, with Andrea playing continuo in Bach’s fourth Brandenburg concerto (G major, BWV 1049) and two Bach arias sung by Joanne. In January 2014, Chernoll Mendonca and Dwayne Fernandes performed the Vivaldi concerto for two violins (A minor RV 522) at the Goa State Museum Patto. And at the Monte Music festival in February 2014, Ashley Rego (violin), Elvina Fernandes and I (violas) and Leo Velho (cello) played the solo parts in Bach’s second Brandenburg concerto (G major BWV 1048) along with visiting musicians from Oberlin Conservatory of Music USA and from Canada.

At each Christmas concert, Camerata Child’s Play India has so far played Christmas concerti (Corelli, Torelli and Manfredini), which are essentially concerti grossi with solo opportunities for section leaders. At the last Christmas concert in December 2015, Chernoll Mendonca, Syanna Fernandes and Leo Velho were these section leaders.

This year, Child’s Play India Foundation inaugurated its Young Performers series, which gives a performance platform not only to our young teachers, but also to other promising young musicians, local and overseas. At our monsoon concert therefore, the stage was shared by not only our violin teacher Syanna Fernandes, but also visiting musicians from Purcell School of Music England Jenny Clarke (piano), Matthew Higham (flute), and from the Royal Conservatoire Scotland, Ed Cohen (piano) and Indian contralto Anckna Arockiam. Continuing this series, our Christmas concert will feature Leo Velho (cello) and Ingrid-Anne Nazareth (piano). Leo will also play cello duos with our visiting musician from Juilliard New York, cellist-conductor Avery Waite.

Lutchmayer makes the same point about the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI), the orchestra-in-residence at the NCPA, and India’s only fully professional symphony orchestra: “The SOI, whether through education or financial incentive, has to have far more Indian players, and book far more Indian soloists.”

Looking at the roster of the SOI in the brochure of the 10th anniversary season concert I attended last month, only 10% of the orchestra’s members are Indian. Interestingly, over 50% of the Indian contingent is of Goan extraction. This is why I have lobbied for an SOI outreach programme in Goa, where I am confident it would be most likely to yield the greatest dividend compared to anywhere else in India. Furthermore, by working with the disadvantaged and lower middle-class sector, there is much higher likelihood of these children wishing to enter the ranks of the SOI than the well-heeled sector, whose parents are more likely to nudge their children towards higher-paid, ‘more respectable’ professions.

julian clef

Lutchmayer’s comment on booking more Indian soloists applies not just to the SOI, but to impresarios and concert organisers all over India. Take the case of Julian Clef, arguably India’s biggest rising name in classical music right now. He has been handpicked by Sir András Schiff, and been lauded by Benjamin Frith, both giants in the piano pedagogy sphere. He has performed at the prestigious Dvořák music festival in Prague in 2012, sharing billboard space with the top guns of the classical music world, from Zubin Mehta and the Staatskapelle Dresden to Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.  BBC Music magazine earlier that year hailed him as a “Rising Star”, a “Great Artist of Tomorrow”. His stunning Gold Medal-winning performance at the Royal Northern College of Music Manchester in 2011 got him snapped up by the leading international music management company Hazard Chase, which represents the world’s renowned artists and has on its roster Piers Lane, Benjamin Grosvenor, and Martin Roscoe (piano); Pinchas Zukerman, Viviane Hagner, Jennifer Pike, and Anthony Marwood (violin); Julian Bream (guitar); and the Brodsky and Endellion string quartets. Yet bizarrely, even this does not guarantee a booked-up concert tour in India. I was flabbergasted to hear an impresario counterpart in another state say to me on the phone, “Clef should not think he can command a performance fee as high as a foreign artist.” Why shouldn’t he? What he brings to the performance arena is just as priceless. The same impresario would probably not bat an eyelid at paying a higher performance fee to a lesser artist as long as s/he has an exotic European or South-East Asian name. Why are we among the last to value the accomplishments of our own people? When will our sense of national pride be more than empty flag-waving, sloganeering and jingoistic chest-thumping?

I am however delighted to report that Kala Academy and ProMusica have responded promptly to the news of Clef’s current concert tour of India (he also performs in Mumbai, Delhi and Trivandrum) and graciously hosted his piano recital at short notice. Clef had inaugurated the Kala Steinway piano, and has given several memorable concerts upon it at return visits, so it will be a homecoming of sorts. He will play works by Chopin, Rachmaninov and Scriabin on 17 October 2016 at Kala Academy’s Dinanath Mangueshkar indoor auditorium at 7 pm. Entry is free.

(An edited version of this article was published on 16 October 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Building a Future – I

I was thrilled to read in the October issue of the NCPA magazine ON Stage an extremely well-written article “The Way Forward” by my friend Prof. Karl Lutchmayer, in which he discusses what can be done to create more awareness of western classical music in India.

It was heartening to find that he so passionately echoes so many of my own views on the subject, that I have touched upon often, in this column, in other sections of the press including ON Stage magazine and elsewhere, and in my blog. There is so much food for thought in his article.

I’d like to focus in this column upon concerts. Lutchmayer stresses the importance of live concerts and public performances, how a vibrant concert calendar has so many benefits, in cultivating an ever-wider audience, providing inspiration to youth, helping mould teachers and performers, or in his words “a powerful breeding ground”.

This is certainly the motivation of Child’s Play India Foundation in regularly organising not only performances of our children and staff, but also young musicians from the community and visiting overseas performers and teachers as well. Our own concert calendar has two steady fixtures namely our monsoon and Christmas concerts, and we avail of creative opportunities in between as well when visiting musicians come by. They often come to Goa to observe our work and offer assistance. This takes the form of pedagogical sessions with our children and faculty, but quite frequently we get a concert or two out of them in the bargain as well. We endeavour to get as many of our children to quality performances as we can, even ferrying them to and fro if needs be, because a good live concert can hugely inspire, and the performers become positive role models to emulate. It also widens their horizons, in opening young minds and ears to new sounds and repertoire.

Goa has a more active concert calendar than most other parts of India, but there is still much more work to be done to make it even more robust.

Virtually all performers who come to Mumbai would love to come to Goa as well. But there are three big questions to answer. Who will take the trouble to organise it? Where can a suitable venue be found? And lastly, perhaps most crucially, who will pick up the tab?

Organising concerts can be a thankless task, especially if it comes down to just two or three people taking care of the logistics. It takes a cascade of small tasks from booking a venue, creating passes and publicity, putting up posters, flogging the passes, and taking care of hospitality, meals, travel tickets, airport transfer and so much else. They become too onerous when it falls to the lot of just a few; but many hands make light work. It is incumbent upon more members of the community to take the responsibility for little tasks and ensure they are done. If parents could help for example with just putting up posters and ensuring that they, their children and their social circle came to such concerts this would, in an upward spiral, make it easier to organise far more concerts.

A suitable venue can be a major stumbling block. Any performance involving a piano narrows down the options to either a venue namely the Kala Academy which already has a magnificent Steinway grand piano in situ; or one has to transport a grand piano (no mean feat even in the best of weather) to an alternative site. Given that the Kala Academy is more often than not booked-up, and on the rare occasion it is available, the rental cost has become even more expensive, this is a huge challenge. Even more tragically, the Steinway, procured at such great cost, gets underplayed, making its mechanism stiff and unwieldy for those few performers that do ultimately get to play on it. The Steinway deserves to be played more often by the high-calibre performers it was built for.

If a piano is not needed, there are more creative possibilities for choice of venue. Lutchmayer asks us to rethink where concerts are held, and take them where they can be more accessible. This is why, in addition to the ‘usual suspects’ like the Kala Academy or the Menezes Braganza, Camerata Child’s Play India has also performed in a church, in the backyard of a restaurant, in museums, art galleries, schools, and in a village hall. The feedback we got from the last option (the Aldona Institute) was really heartening. Many residents told us it was the first time a classical music ensemble had played in their village. There are several issues we have to address when going on the road, which include transport, making the arrangements at the venue, and spreading the word, but it is something we’d certainly like to do more often.

Lutchmayer also writes: “The flourishing of music is always accompanied by its democratisation, and there can be little room for elitism.” Hear, hear. This is why I am so vehemently opposed to the regressive trend of ‘chief guests and ‘special’ guests and ‘reserved VIP seating’ at concerts, an antiquated ego trip long-since discarded in enlightened society. Everyone in the audience should be valued equally at a concert, not some more than others. The only ‘chief guests’ should be the composers and the music itself. There is nothing more dispiriting than a procession of ‘babus’ and entourage, almost always not even having the courtesy to arrive on time, strutting to take their seat in some prominent position in the front row which ironically can be one of the worst seats to be in if one truly wants to savour the music. Even more ironically, in a venue like the Kala, the music would also quite literally ‘go over their heads’. There ought to be a clue in this year 2016; Matthew 20:16 states “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”

Financial support is crucial especially when the concerts are played by visiting performers of high calibre. If a solo performer, the cost, inclusive of airfare (usually one-way either from the previous Indian city or to the next on their concert itinerary), stay, meals and a performer fee, to say nothing of the rental of the venue, can work up to around Rs. 50,000 to 60,000. It is hard, if not impossible to recover this from sale of donation passes alone. If the number of performers is higher, the cost goes up even further; if a cellist is part of the ensemble, the cello requires yet another airline seat. So a string quartet performance (bearing in mind a respectable ensemble could easily command a performance fee of 1000 euros) takes the cost to the six-figure range in rupees.

So steady patronage from corporations and philanthropists is a necessity, but each concert-goer contributes hugely by their presence, and conversely adds to the financial loss incurred when they don’t attend. It is everyone’s loss, especially theirs.

(An edited version of this article was published on 9 October 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)