“We are really impressed with India’s history and monuments”

 

Steinhaus Orchester Besigheim will perform a benefit concert in aid of Child’s Play India Foundation on 26 May 2016 6.30 pm at Menezes Braganza hall Panjim. Their conductor Roland Haug spoke to me in an exclusive interview.

steinhaus orchester besigheim

1. Tell us a little about Steinhaus Orchester Besigheim.

Steinhaus Orchester Besigheim was formed in 2005. The local music school had hosted a youth symphony orchestra from South Africa, and our organisation team decided to visit them and play several concerts in South Africa.

2. What are the essential features of a wind orchestra? A visit from a wind orchestra of thirty musicians is certainly a highlight for us in Goa.

A wind orchestra doesn’t have any strings, only woodwinds, brass and percussion and drums. For the India tour, the Steinhaus Orchester Besigheim has in its ranks two flutes, seven clarinets, one bass clarinet, five saxophones, two bugles, four trumpets, two euphoniums, one baritone, one trombone, two tubas, and drum set and percussion.
You have a lot of possibilities with this combination. You can play original music which was composed especially for wind orchestra, and a lot of transcriptions of all kinds of music.

Roland Haug D

3. How long have you been associated with the Steinhaus Orchester Besigheim?

I have been with the orchestra since its inception; I’ve been its conductor since the first concert tour.

4. Tell us a little about your musical career outside of this orchestra.

I am also trumpet teacher and the leader of the Music School of the town Besigheim with about 760 pupils, and I am conductor and Music Director of several other wind orchestras, and have toured the world with them as well. I recently celebrated my 30th anniversary as conductor.

I have also undertaken several big projects such as “Brass music and choir” and the performance of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Joseph and the amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” with a cast of over 190 actors and musicians, “Annie Get your Gun”, a companionship concert with the motto “Brass meets strings” and gala concerts with the Kreisjugend-Orchester Ludwigsburg.

4. The Steinhaus Orchester tours a lot, having done tours of other countries. Does this create a special bond between them, special memories, shared experiences?

The members are aged between 18 and 80. Some of them have participated in every tour, while others are touring for the first time with the orchestra. It’s wonderful to make music with people who love to do this together and love to travel to foreign countries. It is remarkable how young and old have fun together and help each other.

5. How has the Indian experience been so far?
We are already touring and performing in North India, and are really impressed with India’s history, its monuments, the sight- seeing and we have made many friends along the way.

6. What sort of concert programme will we hear in Goa?
We are playing an entertaining programme. You will listen to the Polka “Leichtes Blut” by Johann Strauß, the waltz “Die Schlittschuhläufer” (Skaters’ Waltz) by Emil Waldteufel, the Frank Sinatra standard “My Way” and also some surprising pieces of music like “In a gentle rain” and a body percussion.
A special highlight is our famous musical singer Kaatje Dierks. She will perform “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and songs from Vicky Leandros with the orchestra. She is a famous singer, and has performed in leading musicals such as Cats, Grease, Hair, Buddy, Footloose, West Side Story, Evita, We Will Rock You, Les Miserables, and Mamma Mia, to name just some of them.

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 25 May 2016)

Steinhaus Orchester Besigheim

steinhaus orchester besigheim

Some months ago, I had commented in this column on the rarity of wind ensembles performing in Goa.

So I was delighted to help the Steinhaus Orchester Besigheim play a concert here, on the Goa leg of their tour of India.

The Steinhaus-Orchester Besigheim is a wind orchestra with musicians from the area of Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart, Germany. It is conducted by Music Director Roland Haug. Their concert programme in Goa (Menezes Braganza hall Panjim 26 May 2016, 6.30 pm) features waltzes, polkas, marches and folk music from Austria, Germany, Switzerland and the Czech Republic.

They have had successful concert tours of other countries: South Africa (2005), Chile (2008), Namibia (2010), Paraguay and Brazil (2012) and Mexico (2014).

The Steinhaus Orchester Besigheim can be seen as the descendant of the Harmonien (ensembles of wind instruments comprising six players or more) of seventeenth-century Prussia and Germany that I had discussed in the earlier article, the precursors of the wind band tradition.

There were also the municipal, town or ‘tower’ musicians, upon whom fell the duty of announcing the hour of the day through short, signature fanfare.

The stimulus for large, standardised, part-playing bands in western Europe is thought to have come from the influence of the Turkish Ottoman empire, whose military had a time-honoured tradition of large bands of musicians playing loud wind and percussion instruments as they accompanied troops onto the battlefield. They would form a semi-circle around their flag or standard. As long as the troops could still hear the band playing, they knew their standard was still flying high and this kept up their morale.

The wind band tradition spread from Germany to other parts of Europe and to Britain and the United States.

From the tiny numbers of the 17th-century Harmonien, the wind orchestra has grown much larger numbers, and the Steinhaus Orchester Besigheim is an indicator of this. It has in its ranks 2 flutes, 7 clarinets, 1 bass-clarinet, 5 saxophones, 2 bugles, 4 trumpets, 2 euphoniums, 1 baritone, 1 trombone,2 tubas, and drum-set and percussion.

The possibilities of tone colour in a wind orchestra or ‘band’ can be exploited in a different direction than if the woodwinds and brass were merely part of a larger ‘conventional’ orchestra with the large string forces. The elimination of doubling of parts (many instruments playing the same melodic lines) brings clarity, precision, and lets individual timbres of instruments come through and project much more effectively. Furthermore, a typical symphony orchestra would not have a full complement of clarinets (the Steinhaus Orchester has eight), and would seldom employ the forces of the saxophone family or euphonium. The clarinets in effect substitute for the strings, and a full complement from the soprano to the bass clarinet covers the harmonic spectrum.

These advantages allow wind orchestras to play orchestral repertoire and bring out nuances that are quite different to when the same work is played by a typical orchestra. For instance, the Steinhaus Orchester will play for us works like the Radetzky March (Johann Strauss Sr.) and Leichtes Blut the famous polka by the more illustrious son Johann Strauss Jr. Both are orchestral favourites, and regulars at the Neuesjahrkonzert (New Year’s Concert) in Vienna and elsewhere). But played by a wind orchestra, they take on a whole new mantle, with tone colours and blends completely unique to their forces.

Thanks to the Portuguese legacy in Goa, we still have brass bands supplemented by a few woodwinds at social occasions such as church feasts, novenas, processions and at weddings and funerals, although this is being seen less often. Our tiatrs would be bereft without the distinctive sound of trumpet and saxophone.

But we have to seriously think about the future of our musical cultural landscape. Too few of our children are learning to play woodwind and brass, for a whole host of reasons, the biggest one being the lack of good teachers. We know this first-hand at Child’s Play India Foundation. Apart from recorder and flute, and a tentative beginning at clarinet, we have not been able to foray further into this sonic territory solely because it has so far been impossible to find teachers for these instruments.

I do not labour under any delusion, as some seem to do, that merely staging a concert featuring such instruments will inspire our youth to rush out to buy them and take them up. Brass instruments cost a fair amount of money, and double-reed woodwind instruments such as oboe and bassoon even more. A good working knowledge of reeds, the making of them, their lifespan etc is necessary, and there is no substitute for an experienced good teacher.

A concert can awaken an interest, for sure, but until there are really good competent teachers locally and round the year, it is unlikely to proceed much further. Essentially this means having to establish a grass-roots pedagogical tradition. The irony is that overseas musicians would love to come here to help do precisely this, provided we can address the visa and financial issues this would involve. And this again is really small change compared to the money required to import say, an overseas football player for the Indian Super League. If philanthropists and corporate houses seeking to meet their CSR (corporate social responsibility) quota help us in this objective, it will have a trickle-up effect in benefiting not just our children but all sections of society. That will be something to toot our collective horn about!

(An edited version of this article was published on 22 May 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Making museums interesting

I was asked by the local press to contribute my thoughts on how we can make museums more interesting in India. An edited version of the following appeared in the press today, International Museum Day:

 

1. I think the first thing to do is to get our museums up to international standards in terms of the upkeep and maintenance of artefacts. A foreign delegation from the museums of that country visited India recently, and I was dismayed to hear from them that not a single museum (not even the Chhatrapati Shivaji Vastu Sangrahalaya, the former Prince of Wales museum in Mumbai) in India currently meets these standards.

2. Also in this vein, knowledgeable guides trained to such high standards should take visitors on guided tours at scheduled times of the day on certain days of the week. Around the world, one has volunteers, Friends of the respective Museums, that do this, and their level of interest in the artefacts on display ensures that they are really well-informed about them and able to field questions from the public while they do the tour. This makes the museum experience so much more interactive for the visitor than just passively walking  around the display cases and reading the often pithy descriptions on the labels (if that). Some museums have started using audio guides, but it should be taken up by more museums across the country. 

3. Events within the museum (book readings, talks relevant to the artefacts, chamber music recitals, plays) bring stuffy, otherwise dull corridors to life.

4. There should be aA sense of reverence and respect for the space. Too often, this gets lost especially in government-run museums, with staff chatting loudly among themselves, with a complete disregard for the visitor, who then feels like an intruder, unwanted, and this mars the experience. It makes a visitor want to cut short their visit and leave.

5. Museums, like so many educational and artistic endeavours, are in ever-increasing danger of succumbing to political correctness, or toeing the incumbent party line, and a muzzling of free thought. All aspects of our history should be celebrated and documented, and there should not be one dominant narrative displacing others just to satisfy the whims of those who happen to be in power at the time. Museums cannot and should not be partisan.

Museums of Lost Sound

When one visits an archaeological ruin, one has to use one’s imagination to “fill in the gaps”, as it were. With 3-D computer graphics, it is possible to recreate at least virtually, some architectural spaces, by extrapolating data collated from historical records, any surviving old paintings or sketches, or if one is lucky, even photographs.

Using such information, for example it should be possible to recreate a virtual three-dimensional model of the church of Nossa Senhora da Graça, the Augustinian monastery in Old Goa, even though it is now a ruin. Enough data can be gathered from the ruin’s dimensions, old photographs of the façade from the early twentieth century by Souza and Paul, and some of its known similarities to the church of Santana de Talaulim, which fortunately still stands. It would be wonderful if an “artist’s impression” could be created of it, so that visitors could “enter” it virtually, and be awed by the main altar, the side chapels, gaze up at the vault and “see” it as if one were travelling back in time.

But what would the Graça have sounded like? It is impossible to know for sure. Each building has a unique “acoustic signature”, based on variables such as its dimensions, construction materials used, internal reflection on side walls, artefacts such as furniture, statues, columns, pulpit, etc, even the use of tapestries, carpets, upholstery.

Sound recording technology is relatively recent, little over a century and a half, so actual acoustic archival evidence cannot date further back than this. But current technology can ensure that we can make an accurate “acoustic fingerprint” of an existing architectural space, which will survive regardless of whether the building then succumbs to the ravages of time, as the magnificent Graça sadly did.

An interesting project is underway, initiated by Sharon Gerstel, art history and archaeology professor at UCLA (University of California Los Angeles). While examining paintings from the Byzantine era, it struck her that “we always look at paintings without thinking of sonic accompaniments….as if they were mute.” She got increasingly interested in what the archaeological buildings she was studying must have sounded like. A friend pointed her in the direction of a 2011 New York Times article discussing the work of Chris Kyriakakis, professor of audio signal processing and psychoacoustics and director of the Immersive Audio Laboratory at the USC (University of Southern California).

The article described among other things how Kyriakakis and team had recorded a performance of Handel’s Messiah at Boston’s Symphony Hall (regarded the world over as an “acoustically perfect sound space” on account of its shoe-box shape and other features) and used the data so that any space could sound like that “perfect” space by tweaking the digital data and by strategic placement of speakers in relation to the listener.

Gerstel read the article and a phone call later, had convinced Kyriakakis to collaborate with her to “go and measure” the Byzantine churches in Greece.

So in June 2014, the largest study of Byzantine church acoustics was conducted by a team of art historians, musicologists, archaeologists, architects and acoustic engineers. The goal was “to investigate whether the radical shift in the architectural shape of Byzantine churches was motivated by acoustics, and to investigate how developments in Byzantine chant were linked to performance spaces, architectural design, and church decoration.”

Museums of Lost Sound

In the investigation process of each space, a digital sound impulse was generated that not only spanned but crossed the human auditory spectrum on either side, and these were picked up by strategically placed microphones all over the building. After making a “sound sweep” of this data, performers were brought in to sing in these spaces. The singers were then taken to sing in an acoustically dry studio space, and their sound could be reproduced as if they were actually singing in the ancient church being studied, using the gathered data. That building had been acoustically fingerprinted for posterity.

Did acoustics play a role in dictating how Byzantine churches were built? This question is worth asking regarding other spaces as well. Much has already been written about church architecture in Goa, about their history, and the nomenclature of their style and period. Could some changes in their design over time have been motivated at least in part by acoustical considerations? It would be interesting to look into this.

The Byzantine study aims to create a virtual “museum of sound” that will outlast the buildings. Regardless of what happens to them, we will know what they sounded like, and it will be possible to reproduce the sound in their spaces as if the buildings were still standing.

It would be well worth creating a similar database for our own religious and secular buildings of acoustic importance in India. With the ravages of “progress” and “development”, old shrines are being replaced by new ones, or torn down altogether. We could try to preserve our own “museum of sound” before it is too late.

(An edited version of this article was published on 15 May 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

By the river Mandovi we sat down and wept

Fr-Bismarque-Singing-Crusader

It is now six months since Fr. Bismarque Dias was brutally snatched away from us. But public memory, far from dimming, only grows stronger, and clamour for justice, for him and his unfortunate family, can only get shriller.

I had heard much about Francis de Tuem’s “Question Mark”, but on two occasions, happened to be travelling when the tiatr came to Panjim. So on 27 April, even though I read that the show was sold out, I turned up, determined to get in somehow. Lady Luck (in the shape of a kind acquaintance) smiled on me at almost the last minute, and I hastily took my seat.

Question Mark

What followed for me was an emotional roller-coaster ride, from the moment the curtain parted. This was unlike any tiatr I had ever been to. It tells the story of fearless, courageous, outspoken Fr. Mark, his tireless campaigning against environmental destruction, the shrinking of our green forest cover, and the demolition of our hills and the pollution of our air and water bodies by rampant mining. It shows the pains he took to educate the public about the importance of protecting this precious God-given heritage, and the laws that are actually meant to safeguard this, but are being twisted by vested interests for selfish gain, and about the abomination that is the IPB (Investment Promotion Board), and the mayhem it is poised to wreak upon Goa.

Tears welled in my eyes at several points in the tiatr; when Fr. Mark (played with much conviction by Sylvester Vaz), guitar slung round his neck, begins to sing the song that will be forever associated with him “Arre Baalya, saarke vaaten choll”, for example. It felt like a stab to the heart, for the memories it evoked. At first my tears embarrassed me, but as I looked around me, I saw that I wasn’t the only one. And as the curtain came down in slow motion on the first half, to the tableau of the discovery of his body in the water, and the anguished cries of his mourners, it was almost too much to bear.

I remember the numb speechless shock I felt when the news broke on 7 November last year, and cannot imagine what those who were actually there must have felt. I had met Fr. Bismarque just a month earlier, near Cafe Bhonsle, cheerful, smiling and upbeat, and this is how I remember him, not the lifeless battered and bloodied corpse that was fished out of the water.

One of the first conversations Fr. Bismarque and I had, after I met him in 2009, was regarding his name. I had mentioned in jest to him that I was an ‘almost-Bismarck’, as I had been named after a great-uncle, but my father, for reasons best known to him, had substituted the middle name Bismarck, for Francisco. And that had led to a discussion of St. Francis of Assisi. I recently came across the etymology of the name Bismarck, and it is believed to be a condensation of Biscofsmark, which means “Bishop’s boundary”. The irony of this would not have been lost on him.

The second half of “Question Mark” was devoted to the shoddy investigation of the gruesome murder of Fr. Mark, and the gaping holes in the conclusions reached by the forensic team and the police. The chillingly plausible reconstruction of what must have actually transpired that fateful night gave one goosebumps. Francis de Tuem’s research into the intricacies of the case is truly impressive, and it is enacted with commendable sincerity by his entire cast.

One needed the comic relief from the sideshow acts and the “filler” songs, to give some respite from the main storyline and its sombre details. Anita Fernandes in particular is a class act, carrying the show in the comedy routines as well as most of the plot. It was the first time I’ve seen her on stage and I am now officially a fan, as I am of Francis de Tuem as well. The tribute song by Sheik Amir to the great tiatrists of yore, Minguel Rod, Jacinto Vaz, M. Boyer and others was also memorable.

This is the first Francis de Tuem tiatr I’ve been to, although I’ve listened to his songs and watched his video clips online many times. He astutely feels the pulse of the people, which is much of the reason for his popularity. A visiting theatre personality had recently commented in an interview that he didn’t think Goans are accustomed to theatre-going. He obviously is unaware of the popularity of tiatr, and should have seen the packed auditorium at each performance of “Question Mark”.

Francis de Tuem’s songs, whether scripted for himself or for the rest of his cast, come truly from the heart, and strike a direct chord with his audience and his listeners. In this respect, he shares a lot with Fr. Bismarque, putting his musical abilities to use for social good. He is a Musical Warrior too.

One quibble: although it was just a passing reference, the use of the “k—“ word to refer to the Nigerian episode in Porvorim should be removed. I have heard it used in other tiatrs as well, and it is time we realised its inappropriateness and its derogatory implications. No slur was intended, I am sure, but the word should be expunged from the vocabulary forever.

That said, Francis de Tuem’s “Question Mark” will go down in the annals of tiatr history for its fearlessness and its timeliness. I have been to see it twice, such is its impact upon me.

Of all the points “Question Mark” made, the most hard-hitting and sober was its opening one: had many, many more of us supported Fr. Bismarque in 2012 during his election campaign and after that, history would have taken a different turn, and he might well have been still with us. Today, he has more ‘friends’ in death than he ever had in life. Too many people airily publicly claim they were ‘with him’ on his campaign trail, when those who were really with him know these ‘friends’ are opportunistic liars.

Goa has been in a state of mourning since November 2015, and is likely to remain so until some closure is achieved. Six months on, it is still difficult to take it all in. We have lost a precious human being, a beautiful mind and soul, one of the most dedicated and indefatigable green warriors Goa has ever had. And for what? To settle scores from a previous election and eliminate a rival for the future? A golf course? An island sold apparently for a song to a resort? A dock by some self-styled Captain? A priceless life snuffed out in exchange for thirty lousy pieces of silver.

In the words of the Don McLean song: The world was never meant for someone as beautiful as you. Perhaps we just never deserved someone quite as beautiful as you.

(An edited version of this article was published on 8 May 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Everybody loves Parenting?

I’ve gone off American comedy serials on television, partly because they’re re-runs most of the time, and also because the storylines and punchlines are boringly predictable in a very ‘American’ sort of way.

So it was quite by chance that I happened to catch a snippet of ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’, Season Two Episode Four. I got interested because I began viewing it at the point where Raymond is sitting at a piano bench with his mother, getting a music lesson.

Everybody loves Parenting

So very briefly, in this episode: Raymond’s little daughter Ally storms off huffily from a piano lesson with her grandmother (Raymond’s mother) and announces she won’t be going back ever. Her mother Debra acquiesces quite tamely, but Raymond, usually laid-back about most things, thinks they shouldn’t give up so easily. In order to inspire his daughter, he resumes lessons with his mother that he had given up (it is not quite clear why) in mid-childhood. And another parent-child, teacher-pupil dynamic begins to play out.

Raymond’s mother berates him for having forgotten so much, and vents her frustration by saying he could have gone far had he stuck with it in his youth. And Raymond begins to blame his father for not having encouraged him in his crucial years, pointing him towards sport instead. The father responds by saying that as Raymond ended up being a sports correspondent and making a living from that, he ought to be grateful.

Raymond’s mother then tells him that Raymond himself was to blame for having stopped playing, not his father. And she let him, because she didn’t want to pin her hopes on him, the way her own mother had done with her.

And to thicken the plot, Raymond’s older brother Robert is generally resentful even in adulthood of the (to him) disproportionate love and attention showered upon Raymond by their parents. He quit piano because, of all the silly reasons, he would suffer from nose-bleeds and stain the piano keys.

So although this is fiction of course, we have several parent-child situations, some of them teacher-pupil as well. Chronologically we have Raymond’s grandmother and mother (example A; the demanding, over-expecting parent who overwhelms the child by setting the benchmark unreasonably high). We have Raymond’s mother and Raymond (example B; the parent/teacher who loves music very much, but doesn’t want to ruin the child’s childhood years as had happened with her). Then there’s Raymond’s father-Raymond (example C; the parent who privately thinks of music and the arts as frou-frou nonsense and wants his child to throw and catch a ball instead). Debra-Ally is example D; the new ‘enlightened’ parent who feels that if a child wants to give something up, then it’s entirely up to him/her, even at a very young age. And lastly we have Raymond-Ally, example E; the parent who somehow knew he could have been fairly proficient at music had he persisted and wants his own child to have a better chance.

This episode of ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ is titled “Mozart”. It is probably lazy, stereotypical labelling (“if it’s about the piano, why not call it Mozart?”) but it would be interesting to look at the dynamics within the Mozart family as well. What sort of father/teacher was Leopold Mozart to his genius son Wolfgang Amadeus and daughter Nannerl? And what sort of father was the great Mozart to his own two surviving children Karl Thomas and Franz Xaver Wolfgang?

More is known about Leopold and his gifted children. Being a gifted composer, conductor, teacher and violinist himself, Leopold was quick to spot the ability in both his children (Nannerl was seven and Wolfgang three) and before long was taking them on extensive and exhausting concert tours. Once Leopold realised in particular what a child prodigy his son was proving to be, he sublimated his own career to helping the advancement of both his children. Historians are divided regarding the motives behind Leopold taking his children on tour and wanting to retain a modicum of control even in their adulthood, but others take a more sympathetic view.

Sadly, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s own surviving two children were born too close to his own demise (the second, Franz Xaver, was born five months before Mozart died) for him to have significant involvement in their music education. And as both sons stayed unmarried and had no children, the Mozart bloodline died with them.

So: who is a ‘good’ parent among all the examples cited above, at least when it comes to music education, or, more broadly, fostering their child’s application at a young age to a particular pursuit? All of us have the best of intentions for our children or (if we are teachers) for our pupils. But we have to safeguard against foisting our own expectations upon them or trying to live out our own unfulfilled life ambitions through them, and stifling them in the process.

At the other extreme, a laissez-faire approach, where there are no expectations at all, and it is deemed unnecessary to guide or encourage the child about anything, that they will ‘find their way’ somehow, is to my mind over-indulgent.

Do you recognise yourself (or someone you know; a friend, acquaintance, relative) as either the parent or child, teacher or pupil in examples A to E? The list is not exhaustive, of course.

The majority of the musicians I know and who’ve come here on tour have told me of loving, nurturing relationships with their parents and teachers. But there are a few who have been in dysfunctional ones; some have persisted despite it, a few have been scarred and some have quit.

I know of a young woman who got to the level of concert pianist, and then chucked what seemed like the beginning of a promising career to study to be something else. She might not admit it to herself, but her decision was at least in part to escape the stifling control and expectations of her own mother and teacher.

There is a gifted jazz musician who speaks disparagingly of his young son, calling him “no good” within earshot. Perhaps the father thinks this is ‘tough love’ or reverse psychology, but when I see the pain in the son’s face each time he hears the putdown, I think of it as cruelty.

It is easier to articulate what is ’bad’ parenting or teaching than what is ‘good’. But I think that if love underpins the dynamic, coupled with an intuitiveness that can only come with the wisdom brought by time, to know when to nudge and when to back off, and to nurture and give the child the best possible opportunities when s/he shows genuine interest and progress, then we cannot go far wrong.

(An edited version of this article was published on 1 May 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Zubin Mehta and my first LP

Maestro Zubin Mehta turns 80 on 29 April, and a series of concerts in Mumbai with the Israel Philharmonic and soloists Pinchas Zukerman, Amanda Forsyth, Denis Matsuev, Andrea Bocelli, and Maria Katzarava mark this momentous milestone.

Information and music are so readily available today, literally at the click of a mouse or a touch of a screen, that it seems unreal to recollect how difficult it was back in the 1970s.

The only music I had access to at that time was the unwieldy spool tapes that fitted onto a machine that weighed a ton, and had very low sound fidelity, and LPs (long playing records, at 33 1/3 rpm or revolutions per minute), 78s (78 rpm) and 45s. Classical music was to be found mainly on the spool tapes and the LPs.

And before audio cassettes burst upon the scene, changing the way we listened to music, the only way to build one’s music library was to hunt for records, and Sinari’s near the Secretariat was the only place to go. But classical music was pretty hard to come by in those days. I remember Sinari’s once having an exhibition of Melodiya records from the USSR at Menezes Braganza for several days, and it was a treat to go there just to listen to the music. In retrospect, it was part of the Soviet bloc’s Cold War cultural diplomacy, but we weren’t complaining.

The 70s saw Zubin Mehta scaling unimaginable heights in the world of classical music, which few even today, let alone someone coming from India, could rival. At the age of 25, he had conducted three of the world’s major orchestras, the Vienna, Berlin and Israel Philharmonic orchestras. He was director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1962 to 1978, of the Israel Philharmonic in 1977, and of the New York Philharmonic in 1978, a post he would hold for 13 years, the longest in the orchestra’s history. Think of a contemporary conductor, and hardly any have had such a comparably astonishing, meteoric trajectory.

We read about Mehta in the Indian press, and whenever Time magazine covered his achievements. But through the 70s, as far as I could remember, there wasn’t any actual music accessible within India that we could listen to. In the music collection that my father brought back from Germany in 1970, we had nothing conducted by Mehta.

This is why I was so excited when CBS Gramophone Records and Tapes (India) Ltd saw fit to release in 1983 a recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto, played by Isaac Stern, and with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta. It remains etched in my memory, because it was a first of everything for me: the first time I would hear the Brahms Violin Concerto, the first time I would hear Stern play, and perhaps the first recording I would hear of the New York Philharmonic (it is possible that I might have heard them before on the radio via the BBC World Service’s wonderful Thursday request programme “the Pleasure is Yours”), and the first time I would hear Mehta conduct.

It was the first classical LP I remember buying. If I’m not mistaken, it cost Rs. 50, and I remember the short walk home, gingerly holding it right side up so the record wouldn’t roll out of its sleeve!

My dad’s LP collection featured largely German or Austrian orchestras, and the programme notes on their sleeves were usually in German, if at all. So it was refreshing to hear an ‘American’ sound. And I could read about the music in English for a change.

The striking, arresting cover photograph was taken by Bill King, who (although I didn’t know it then) was one of the most acclaimed fashion photographers of his time, a regular on Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Vanity Fair, the toast of the Milan and Paris fashion elite, and whose “exuberant images celebrated youth and optimism”. He seemed a more likely choice for a Rolling Stone cover (and indeed he was, often) than for the front of a classical music LP.

My first LP

King has an unbelievably youthful Mehta looking us straight in the eye, while Stern looks somewhat self-consciously away, his violin scroll cradled against his left collarbone. The picture has a grainy quality that somehow makes it look hip and dignified at the same time.

The programme notes were written by one Joscelyn Godwin, and they helped me right then, to start ‘joining the dots’, as it were, when it came to musical history. For instance, she points out that Brahms had completed his Second Symphony a year before this concerto, “and it seems as if that particular mine of musical inspiration was not yet exhausted, for the Violin Concerto is almost like a sister piece”.

I happened to have the Second Symphony in our collection, so was able to listen and compare. And yes, the similarities were indeed there: similar opening statements, both in triple meter, both in D major. And “as in the symphony, strength is always tempered with gentleness”. It was thrilling to be able to hear exactly what she meant.

But even she couldn’t resist slipping in some contemporary culture: karate and kung-fu were big by then, hoo-haa-ing into film and music (remember ‘Kung Fu fighting’ by Biddu, sung by Carl Douglas, now making a comeback with Kung Fu Panda 3). So I was tickled pink by the way she concludes her programme note: “Yet just before the end there is a moment of calm, as if to show that neither Brahms nor his performers are allowing themselves to be swept along in a mindless race for the finish — the gesture of a karate master who can stop a blow a hair’s breadth from its target”.

To this day, I cannot hear the finale of the Brahms Violin Concerto without this imagery in my head. I’ve been hooked on to reading programme notes ever since.

All these thoughts come rushing at me as I remember the first time I “heard” Zubin Mehta. Little did I know then that I’d hear him and the New York Philharmonic in Mumbai barely two years later.

Happy 80th, Maestro! May you have many many more, filled with good health, happiness and great music!

(An edited version of this article was published on 24 April 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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