None Shall Sleep

 

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

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

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

Nessun Dorma

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

 

 

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

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

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

Related image

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

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

Image result for Les Mille et un jours

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

Image result for Haft Peykar

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

Image result for Nizami Ganjavi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for turandot china zubin mehta

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

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

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

Advertisements

Three young Goan violinists impress at Singapore

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

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

Do watch the YouTube clip.

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

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

Junior Menuhin Competition Finalists 2018 Cover

Image result for menuhin competition senior winners 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG-20180606-WA0069

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

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

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

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

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

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

If it’s Russia, it must be Tchaikovsky

 

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

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

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

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

tchaikovsky-1334756559-hero-wide-0

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

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

Image result for peter the great

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

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

Image result for napoleon 1812 invasion russia

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

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

Image result for russian composers "the five"

Image result for russian composers "the five"

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

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

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

Image result for st petersburg conservatory

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

Image result for moscow conservatory

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

Image result for russian musical society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for russia hate crimes lgbt

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

Image result for dangers of nationalism

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

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

 

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

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

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

Jonah Poplove 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonah Poplove 6

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

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

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

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

Jonah Poplove 3

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

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

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

Jonah poplove 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Music and Ornithology: Mozart’s Starling

 

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

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

mozart starling-thumb

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

Image result for mozart's starling

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

Image result for sturnus vulgaris

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

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

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

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

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

Related image

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here rests a bird called Starling,

A foolish little Darling.

He was still in his prime

When he ran out of time,

And my sweet little friend

Came to a bitter end,

Creating a terrible smart

Deep in my heart.

Gentle Reader! Shed a tear,

For he was dear,

Sometimes a bit too jolly

And, at times, quite folly,

But nevermore

A bore.I bet he is now up on high

Praising my friendship to the sky,

Which I render

Without tender;

For when he took his sudden leave,

Which brought to me such grief,

He was not thinking of the man

Who writes and rhymes as no one can.

June 4, 1787.

Mozart”

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Pushing Boundaries: Sheku Kanneh-Mason

When a royal couple have their thunder stolen at their own wedding ceremony by a teenager, that must really take some doing.

I was not among the over 2 billion people worldwide that watched the live television coverage of the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. To be honest, I hadn’t even registered when it was scheduled, and we were anyway deep in the Mollem jungle as part of Nature’s Nest weekend summer camp for children and parents.

But when we got back to civilization, it was impossible to miss the hoopla around the event, with all social media abuzz. Views about the very institution of the royal family are sharply divided, of course. Many Britons (and overseas, Americans seem to lap it up more than other nationalities) are staunch royalists, but equally many aren’t. There is an amusing video clip of a stadium-full of Celtic fans chanting (to the tune of “She’ll be coming down the mountain”), in no uncertain terms, what they think of the royal wedding, to put it very mildly.

Whatever one’s viewpoint, it’s undeniable that classical music gets a huge boost at royal ceremonial occasions, be they weddings, funerals, coronations or jubilees. Through history there’s so much music written specifically for ceremonial events (think Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks of 1749, or his anthem Zadok the Priest written for the coronation of George II in 1727). But interest in classical music in general shows an upswing around these milestones. Indeed Decca Records will release an album of all the music performed at this wedding.

The cynosure of all eyes and ears around the world at the ceremony was nineteen-year old Sheku Kanneh-Mason. If it’s a name people have trouble spelling or pronouncing, it is just something they’ll have to get used to, as his star, already in the ascendant before this (he won the 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year award at the age of seventeen, the first black musician ever to win the award in its 38-year history), is poised now to rise to even greater heights.

sheku-kanneh-mason-ftr

 

He was scheduled to perform in Los Angeles, but readily altered his plans to fit in the royal wedding performance after Markle personally called, requesting him to play.

Sheku is only one of seven remarkable siblings, all of whom play musical instruments to an extremely high standard: Isata, 21, violin and piano; Braimah, 20, violin; Konya, 17, piano and violin; Jeneba, 15, piano and cello; Aminata, 12, violin and piano; and Mariatu, just 8, cello and piano.

Isata, Braimah, Sheku, Konya and Jeneba are all studying at the Royal Academy of Music London, almost all on full scholarships, and their younger siblings are poised to join them as well. Isata, Braimah and Sheku constitute the Kanneh-Mason Piano Trio, and have already taken many prestigious concert venues by storm.

Neither of their parents are musicians, although they both played instruments in their own childhood. Their father Stuart Mason has roots in Antigua, and is a business manager, working for a luxury hotel chain, while their Sierra Leone-born mother Dr. Kadiatu Kanneh is a former lecturer in literature at the University of Birmingham.

So how did the musical spark turn into a flame in the family? I find such stories fascinating. It all began with the parents thinking it a good idea to begin the eldest on the piano. Not only did Isata exceed their expectations at the instrument (she got to the 2014 final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year), but she was the catalyst in inspiring all the siblings that followed, in a sort of domino effect.

In an interview to the Financial Times in January 2018, their mother stresses that she was determined “never to remark on the lack of black people in classical music to our children”. Perhaps this is why Sheku grew up giving little thought to the unbalanced black-to-white ratio of classical musicians at the concerts his parents took him to; this and of course the fact that as all seven siblings played a musical instrument, he never thought that “what we were doing might not be normal”.

This is the constant refrain of any journalist who’s been to their home to interview them: that there’s someone either practicing or listening to music in the house all the time, the Kanneh-Mason version of a “normal” family.

The older six siblings were competitors in 2015 Britain’s Got Talent (BGT) as the Kanneh-Masons and got to the semi-finals.  They succeeded in making classical music ‘cool’.

“I think a lot of people think classical music is boring” said Isata in a TV interview, “but we just want everyone to enjoy it as much as we do.” This was also the comment of the BGT judges, that classical music, often seen by others as “stuffy”, was given “character, personality and fun” by the Kanneh-Masons, opening up whole new audiences among those who hadn’t appreciated it before.

After winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year (and now even more so after performing at the royal wedding), Sheku has come to be viewed as a poster-boy, and ambassador for young black musicians in a white-dominated arena.

26993425_586022208400053_3272249295902496933_n

Isata, Braimah and Sheku are all members of Chineke! orchestra, (which I written about several columns ago), the first professional orchestra in Europe to be made up of majority black and minority ethnic (BME) musicians, founded in 2015.

Sheku has brought the cello back into the spotlight again. Comparisons are already being made by critics to the celebrated cellist Jacqueline du Pré (1945-1987), high praise indeed.

download (2)

du Pré’s own siblings Piers and Hilary had this to say in reaction to Sheku’s debut CD album ‘Inspiration’ (recorded with the City of Birmingham Orchestra conducted by Mirga Gražintė-Tyla and released in January 2018) in which he dedicates a piece (‘Tears for Jacqueline’) to her:  “Jackie would often say, ‘So many cellists can play technically well, but can they make music?’ Sheku makes music. He’s the first cellist since Jackie who has that natural and vibrant abandonment when playing. A sheer delight. Jackie would have loved to meet him.”

The success of the CD made Sheku “the UK’s youngest cellist to break into the Official Albums Chart Top 20 with his debut album”. Incidentally, his hometown Nottingham named a bus in his honour after he won the BBC Young Musician of the Year award, and the signing of the CD contract took place on board that bus.

download

download (1)

He showed his commitment to music education by donating £3,000 in January 2018 to his former secondary school, enabling ten other pupils to continue their cello lessons.

If you missed all of the royal wedding, no matter. Just get online and listen to ten minutes of Sheku Kanneh-Mason for “that natural and vibrant abandonment when playing”. It will make your day.

(An edited version of this article was published on 3 June 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

`Five Beethoven Piano Concertos, Two Days, One Pianist (and Orchestra) = Heaven!

 

Although much is made of the classical music scene in Goa, from time to time, I try to find an excuse to visit Mumbai for the vastly superior fare usually on offer at the NCPA (National Centre for the Performing Arts) at Nariman Point. One can book concerts online, and most of them are quite affordable and extremely good value-for-money, especially if you compare it with what is served up at outrageously-overpriced, shoddily-rehearsed, hastily-cobbled ‘music festivals’ here. Participating musicians have themselves told me of ending up playing under-rehearsed concerts, and the multiple onstage slip-ups. But our gullible public laps it all up, with ‘standing ovations’ to boot.

Due to Child’s Play and other commitments, it gets difficult to stay away from home for too long, and often the NCPA concerts, especially featuring their Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI), have gaps of several days between them. This makes sense for Mumbaikars but is impractical for out-of-town visitors.

So when I scanned the month’s schedule and found two back-to-back concerts featuring the Camerata Ireland, I was naturally interested. And when I learned that their founder, Irish pianist-conductor and winner of the prestigious Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in 1986, Barry Douglas, would be playing (and conducting from the piano) all five Beethoven piano concertos, I was sold.

I’ve heard the Beethoven piano concertos performed live before, but never as a cycle. To play and conduct them all is a huge feat in itself, but hearing them in almost chronological order also reveals huge insights that might otherwise have been missed.

I said “almost chronological order”, because in terms of planning programme length and onstage orchestral forces, it seemed more practical to pair off the Third (C minor, opus 37) and Fifth (E flat major, opus 73) Piano Concertos on the second day: both require a pair each of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns and trumpets; and timpani and strings. On the first day, we therefore began with the Second Piano Concerto (B flat major, opus 19), followed by the First (C major, opus 15), which actually makes chronological sense as the Second was written before the First, even though they were later published in the reverse order; and the Fourth Piano Concerto (G major, opus 58) followed after the intermission.

The orchestral forces summoned by Beethoven are the so-called “standard complement” of doubled winds and brass that became common from the first half of the nineteenth century. But in his First, Second and Fourth Piano Concertos, the score specifies a single flute. Another good reason to programme these on the same day.

In keeping with HIP (historically informed performance) practice, Douglas followed the placement of the string section prevalent in Beethoven’s day: first and second violins to left and right of the audience respectively, with the violas and cellos from left to right (as seen from the audience) between them, and the double-basses behind the second violins. The woodwinds and brass were arrayed in two rows behind the strings, with the timpani next to the basses. And the piano? A modern-day concert grand, with its lid completely taken off, with its keyboard facing the audience, so that Douglas could play and conduct in the very heart of the ensemble.

camerata-ireland-with

The seating arrangement of the first and second violins brought out the interplay in the writing, and the bouncing of themes back and forth between them. This “stereophonic” effect gets lost when the violins are lumped together in the ‘modern’ arrangement. And speaking from personal experience as an orchestral player, it helps to be seated closer to the bass line, and one gets a better sense of the harmonic foundation of a composition when ‘period’ seating is followed.

(In contrast, here’s a clip of Barry Douglas and the Camerata Ireland playing the Second Piano Concerto, but with more ‘conventional seating and placement of the piano)

Written between 1788 and 1809, Beethoven’s Piano Concertos cover a timespan straddling both the so-called ‘early’ (the first two concertos) and his more mature ‘middle’ (the last three concertos) periods of his compositional career. This was also when great innovations were being made in the evolution of the piano as an instrument, and Beethoven was quick to assimilate these advantages into his writing, in terms of expressivity, tonal and dynamic range. As soon as more notes were added to the gamut of the keyboard, Beethoven would use these in his composing, so that anyone wanting to play his music had to have the advanced piano model. Conversely, contemporary piano-makers sought and valued Beethoven’s opinion and suggestions. One could therefore hear a sea-change in Beethoven’s writing for the instrument, from the Mozartean elegance of the ‘early’ concertos to the Sturm und Drang of the ‘Emperor’, the last in the Piano Concerto cycle.

One fact that leapt out just from scanning the programme: every final movement all the Piano Concertos is a Rondo (which means it has a recurring principal theme interspersed among other contrasting ones). He does this in his other concertos as well (his Violin Concerto, and Triple Concerto for violin, cello and piano).

If one marveled at Barry Douglas’ sheer stamina, to say nothing of his virtuosity, in accomplishing the marathon of the Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle in two consecutive evenings, one has to also think of the powers at Beethoven’s command. Apparently, on the day of the premiere of his Second Piano Concerto, he arrived (already unwell due to abdominal colic) to find the instrument flat by a half-tone. The winds couldn’t tune down as well, so the simplest expedient was for him to transpose the solo part for the whole concerto up a half-tone, in his head, and perform it!

Why can’t we have the same concert decorum here that the NCPA has? They constantly attract newcomers from all walks of life to classical music concerts, yet all their concerts go off without a hitch. The doors close a minute before (no ‘VIPs’ waltzing in and out whenever they like), everyone is seated with their phones off, and the concert begins on the dot.

Latecomers are allowed in by ushers only after a whole work has finished, and not before. No wailing babies, or children running up and down the aisle, no chit-chat once the music begins. A simple pre-concert announcement about switching off phones and not clapping between movements ensures near-total compliance. Those who unwittingly whip out their phone-cameras to make recordings are spotted at once by ushers and gently dissuaded, but even this happens less and less often.

For decades now, we keep hearing about the need to ‘educate’ audiences here, but this has to go hand-in-hand with just a few, very simple changes put into effect: doors (that do not slam, creak, squeak or click, but open and close noiselessly!) manned by trained staff who only let latecomers in after whole works are completed, and not in between. This and a few pre-concert announcements about phones and concert etiquette, reinforced by vigilant ushers, have made a huge difference to audience behaviour (and enjoyment of the concert-going experience) there, and could easily be achieved here as well.

(An edited version of this article was published on 27 May 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

 

In defence of the much-sullied Salieri

Let us try to imagine how we are remembered, faraway into the distant future. Centuries from now, if, despite all that we have achieved in this life, future generations simply do not recall, still less celebrate, any of it. Even worse, what if posterity rubs more salt into the wound, and maligns our legacy, attributing to us a horrible crime that we never committed.

When, as a tribute to the recently-deceased Czech-American film director Miloš Forman, a screening of his award-winning film 1984 ‘Amadeus’ (a “fictionalised biography” of the great composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) based on the 1979 stage play of the same name by Peter Shaffer) was scheduled by the Cinephile Club, I went, of course. It would be great to watch (and hear) it again on the big screen.

Related image

But I have a few issues with the film. The strong American accent of Tom Hulce’s Mozart, but that’s just me. I accept it’s unavoidable as it’s an American production after all. There’s also his irritating laugh, meant to show Mozart’s impish sense of humour and supposed irreverence for authority figures, but it just seems exaggerated and forced.

There’s also the impression created that Mozart wrote “with no corrections of any kind”, “music already finished in his head”, “as if taking dictation” from a Divine source.

The truth is that Mozart did write sketches, from small snippets to extensive drafts, for his compositions. His phenomenal musical prowess was exaggerated to the point of mythology in the nineteenth century. The nineteenth century seems to have been the “century of mythologisation” in so many spheres, all over the world, even in our own Goa, but that’s another story.

My biggest grouse with the film, however, is its slanderous depiction of Italian composer, conductor and teacher Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) as Mozart’s jealous rival, so possessed by envy that he might even resort to coldblooded, calculated murder.

Antonio_Salieri_painted_by_Joseph_Willibrord_Mähler

Shaffer’s play and Forman’s film adaptation did Salieri the double-edged favour of catapulting him out of obscurity back into public consciousness (I was eighteen when ‘Amadeus’ was released, and had certainly not heard of him before)I, but for all the wrong reasons.

To be fair to Shaffer, the tarnishing of Salieri had begun much earlier, decades after Mozart’s untimely death in 1791 at just thirty-five, with rumours circulating that Salieri had poisoned Mozart. The background to this was the rivalry between the German and Italian schools of music, which spilled into Viennese circles as well. In the letters exchanged between Mozart and his father Leopold, references are made to “cabals” of Italians led by Salieri allegedly obstructing the progress of Mozart’s career.

One particular example (mentioned in the film as well) was when Mozart applied in 1781 for the post of music teacher of Princess Elisabeth of Württemberg, and Salieri was selected instead, on account of his reputation as a singing teacher. Mozart applied the following year to be her piano teacher. Leopold wrote to Mozart’s sister Nannerl: “Salieri and his tribe will move heaven and earth to put it down.”

The two composers had their differences again when Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo da Ponte was in Prague preparing for the production of Don Giovanni when da Ponte was recalled to Vienna for a royal wedding at which Salieri’s opera Axur, rex d’Ormus was to be staged. Mozart was obviously displeased, but Salieri may not have had a hand in the decision.

This persecution mentality could have been a mere figment of the imagination of the part of the Mozarts, but it lent credence to the conspiracy theory after Mozart’s premature death.

In 1832, the German composer Albert Lortzing (1801-1851) composed a Singspiel ‘Szenen aus Mozarts Leben’ (Scenes from Mozart’s Life) LoVW28 describing a jealous Salieri obstructing Mozart’s career.

The fact that the same year, Russian poet, playwright and novelist Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) published his poetic drama ‘Mozart and Salieri’ shows how far the rumour had spread. Pushkin’s work in turn was the inspiration for an opera of the same name in 1897 by Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) and a silent film in 1914 by Victor Tourjansky. The same Pushkin drama also inspired Peter Shaffer’s play ‘Amadeus’.

But let’s examine the evidence, if any, to support the rumour. Salieri was a hugely respected composer in his day. His known oeuvre contains 652 works, with forty operas (no mean feat), several ballets, secular choruses and cantatas, five oratorios, several masses (including two Requiem Masses; he had no need to ‘ghost-commission’ one from another composer!), six concertos, several symphonies, and so much more.

He began his career as protégé of Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787), and so ironically his music was much more in the German tradition of Gluck and less in the Italian ‘camp’, as it were. Although Italian by birth, he had lived almost six decades in imperial Vienna and was regarded by his peers as a ‘German’ composer. Salieri was also teacher to Beethoven, Liszt and Schubert among many others.

Image result for mozart salieri

Did professional rivalry sizzle between Mozart and Salieri? But of course; it would have been inevitable. But if anything, the written evidence of resentment weighs heavily on the side of Mozart, not Salieri. Had the roles been reversed and Salieri had died under uncertain circumstances before Mozart, would Mozart’s carping about Salieri in his correspondence have been used as evidence against him?

Despite their rivalry, they actually saw each other as friends and colleagues, and even supported each other’s work. In 1788 when Salieri was appointed Kapellmeister, he revived Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro instead writing a new opera of his own. (In the film, much is made of Salieri planting a maid in the Mozarts’ residence to unearth the Figaro opera and complain to the Emperor. It didn’t happen). In 1790, when Salieri went to the coronation festivities of Leopold II, he took three Mozart masses with him.

Mozart and Salieri even co-wrote a cantata for voice and piano, ‘Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia’, considered lost but rediscovered in 2016. Salieri also suggested the premieres of several of Mozart’s works, including his Piano Concerto KV482, Clarinet quintet and the famous Symphony no. 40, even conducting the latter himself in 1791.

Mozart’s last surviving letter of October 1791 describes collecting Salieri in his carriage to his opera The Magic Flute: “He heard and saw with all his attention, and from the overture to the last choir there was not a piece that didn’t elicit a ‘Bravo!’ or ‘Bello!’ out of him.”

Salieri also was teacher to Mozart’s younger son Franz Xaver, born the year Mozart died.

Although Mozart’s premature death understandably led to much speculation, the consensus today seems to indicate kidney disease (acute post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis), compounded by medical mismanagement. But posterity should exonerate Salieri’s reputation once and for all. He deserves far better. It is already happening, with a revival of his music to much acclaim.

(An edited version of this article was published on 20 May 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

A Star is Born!

 

Image1

I first met Anthea Luna-Marie Dias in the months running up to our 2016 Child’s Play Christmas concert. We were being visited by Juilliard-trained  cellist-conductor Avery Waite, and our Camerata Child’s Play rehearsals were underway.

Anthea was just ten years old, but already playing to a level that she could handle the demands (the Christmas medley needed a few shifts beyond the third position, so beyond the ‘comfort zone’ of many, and some artificial harmonics) of the first violin part.

Despite the distance from Margão to twice-weekly Panjim rehearsals, she was prompt and prepared every time. I made a special mention of her at the Christmas concert, and have had my eye on Anthea’s progress ever since.

In November 2016, I forwarded a video of Anthea playing the first movement of the Mozart violin concerto no. 3 (K. 316) in G major to a violin pedagogue in the Symphony Orchestra of India because her playing was already fairly impressive.

My friendship with her teacher Winston Collaco spans several decades. We probably first met in the 1980s, playing together under the baton of Maestro Rev. Fr. Lourdino Barreto. In my medical student years, I would take my violin to college on Saturdays so that I could go directly from Bambolim to Margao to take lessons from Winston. So yes, he’s been a violin teacher at least since then! In 1986, he prepared me for Grade 8 of the Trinity College exam and helped me secure an Honours grade.

We became even closer in 1989, the year that American violin pedagogue and conductor Prof. George Trautwein and his wife Barbara were in Goa. Winston and I were the exact same ages as their own two sons, and we became like their surrogate children here. I still fondly remember that year (which happily coincided with the liberating year of my internship, relatively free from medical studies) as a golden year in widening my musical horizons.

Then I got caught up in my obstetrics and gynaecology residency, and if I remember right Winston got into the banking profession. Nevertheless, after relocating back to Goa after a decade in the UK to set up Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org), the first teacher I turned to when we began our partnership with Hamara School was Winston.

Irfan Shimpigar, who was in that first batch of students and is still with us at Child’s Play, is a beneficiary of the crucial initial grounding given by Winston. Sadly, after about a year and a half, Winston wasn’t able to sustain the schedule of weekly lessons with Child’s Play.

But we continued to stay in touch. I was aware that Winston was hugely sought-after as a violin teacher. But I only heard Anthea play again at the SPIC-MACAY end-of-workshop concert at the Kala Academy conducted by visiting Norwegian musicians some months ago. She played the first two movements of the Beethoven ’Spring’ violin sonata (Opus 24, no. 5) in F major with remarkable poise, facility and confidence.

The time was more than ripe for her to give a public recital to a larger audience than the sparse turn-out at the SPIC-MACAY concert, and I am glad that ProMusica provided this platform to her, along with many teenage performers and a few older ones.

I attended the Porvorim concert on 21 April 2018. Anthea (understandably due to time constraints, as she was sharing the stage with eight other soloists) played just the first movement of the Spring Sonata.

When I read on the programme that she would also be playing Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), opus 20, at first I was incredulous.

Image result for sarasate

The work is a mini-concerto, (scored for violin and piano, and recorded by the composer himself and later arranged for violin and orchestra), with a dramatic ‘first movement’ with much quasi-improvisatory cadenza-like virtuoso writing, a muted, melancholy central movement, and a fiery (you almost expect to see sparks fly from the contact of bow with string) devil-may-care vivace finale in the style of the irrepressible Hungarian folk dance, the csárdás. (Incidentally, Sarasate apparently ‘lifted’ the haunting central lyrical melody almost note-for-note from a Hungarian composer Elémer Szentirmay, and feigned innocence when challenged, claiming he had ‘heard it from gypsies’, and therefore presumed it to be a Roma folk tune!)

Szentirmay, Csak egy szép lány van a világon

Sarasate, Zigeunerweisen

Zigeunerweisen has virtually all the technique and pyrotechnics in a violinist’s bag-of-tricks: harmonics, glissandi, double-stopped passages, left- and right-hand pizzicato, flying spiccati and ricochet bowings. And it demands a “stream of beautiful sound” (a description by the famed Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick of Sarasate’s own playing), particularly in, but not confined to, the un poco più lento ‘central movement’.

I must confess (despite knowing of her commendable recent ATCL triumph) I was not aware that little Anthea had such prowess under her belt, and I was on the edge of my seat, hands clenched together almost in prayer as she began to play. But she tossed off the fireworks with such nonchalance and played with a sweet tone and maturity beyond her years. She seemed to be relishing every moment of the drama. That she was fully ‘in the zone’ was evident from the way she calmly took off her mute and looked over her shoulder to cue her accompanist Maria Gisela Pereira to launch into the runaway dash to the finish line.

Although we share a surname, Anthea Dias is not a relative, and there is no conflict of interest in my showering well-deserved praise upon her.  I have never heard any Goan 12-year-old, or older or younger, ever play on any instrument as prodigiously or precociously as Anthea did that evening. And I am not alone in this opinion. Let me share what my friend Nigel Britto, Times of India music critic, who trekked all the way down to Margão for the 28 April concert just to hear her had to say on social media shortly after: “There are very, very few people as gifted as Anthea Dias, all of 12 years old, from Margão. Recently watched her perform Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, and was stunned. Blazing proficiency, supreme confidence, and an unusually profound feel for the music. For those nine-odd minutes at Harmonia, time stood still. Nobody’s concentration wavered. Couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Saying that jaws dropped all around would be an understatement.”

And I am even more excited to learn after a conversation I had later with Winston, that getting other young children to Anthea’s level and even beyond, is a very realistic goal, with the proper coaching. If anyone can bring about a true ‘Renaissance’ in classical music in Goa, it is not organisers of flashy pseudo-intellectual mumbo-jumbo concerts in exotic locations, or old-wine-in-new-bottle ensembles, choral and instrumental, with the same tired old ‘usual suspects’, but it is music educators like my friend Winston Collaco, who lovingly nurture tender young minds, hands, hearts and souls to their fullest potential.

(An edited version of this article was published on 13 May 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Farewell, Madam Wagle (1929-2018)

 

Although I must have befriended Smt. Mangala Wagle sometime in 2009, about a year after we relocated back to Goa from the UK, it feels like I’ve known her even before that. There was such a sense of timelessness and agelessness about her.

Mangala Wagle

As some of you will be aware, my wife Chryselle and I returned to Goa in 2008, and uppermost among the reasons for this move was the setting up of our music charity for disadvantaged children, Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org). In fact, even before we made the move, we had begun looking at schools and children’s shelters and charities that would be willing to partner with us. We explored several possibilities, but none seemed to ‘click’, as it were.

The months after our return went by in a blur, what with the transfer of residence and the arrival of all the books, music and other personal effects I had accumulated in the decade of my life in the UK, the birth of our son and the registration process of Child’s Play. After several false starts, we still hadn’t found a partner to work with. And then someone recommended we go to Mangala Wagle at Hamara School in St. Inez.

At the very first meeting, she totally ‘got’ what we were setting out to do. This was such a change from other heads of charities we had met before this. This is why, no matter how big Child’s Play eventually becomes, I will always have a special soft spot for Madam Wagle and for Hamara School. She was the first to welcome us readily, with open arms. To borrow a line from the classic film Casablanca, it was “the beginning of a beautiful friendship”, between her and me, and between Hamara School and Child’s Play.

Image result for mangala wagle

We must have met on innumerable occasions, either in passing, or more often to iron out some problem in scheduling of classes, or storage of instruments, or working out a steady daily practice schedule for the children, etc. What I appreciated about her is that she would try as much as possible to accommodate our needs and schedule.

The world over, music educators constantly have to bargain with parents and with mainstream academic curriculum teachers and tutors to defend the sometimes ever-shrinking daily time allotment for music learning and practice in a child’s waking hours. It is particularly bad in India on account of the obsession with frequent exams and tests, rote learning, the competition for entrance into higher tiers of learning or employment, and the low value attached to anything deemed ‘extra-curricular’.

Therefore, music educators everywhere value more than gold any rigorous research-based evidence in support of the argument that time devoted to music is actually beneficial, rather than detrimental, to a child’s academic performance.

So, whenever I mined further research information on this topic, I’d go armed with this to my next meeting with Ms Wagle. She would patiently hear me out, with an amused smile on her face, and then gently remind me that I was preaching to the choir! She already knew of the power and importance of music in general and music education in particular in enriching our lives. And she would then cite examples of children from Hamara School in our Child’s Play music project whose school grade had improved remarkably after they had been introduced to music lessons with us. It was always heartening to hear this.

The fact that she valued our partnership would become evident whenever she introduced me to visitors either at her apartment or at Hamara School. She would tell them that we were among the rare partners of Hamara School who had stuck it out despite all sorts of odds and obstacles, in contrast to so many others who had begun initiatives only to quit shortly after, or were only involved on a sporadic or periodic basis.

I grew to cherish and look forward to our meetings and telephone conversations; they became much more than mere trouble-shooting sessions, and evolved into a close friendship bond. We would talk about issues which at first glance might have seemed far beyond the scope of our music project; but on another level, they were also all interconnected. For instance, we would sometimes discuss career education and employment prospects of some of the children, but social empowerment is also one of our aims, right up there with pursuit of musical excellence.

Barely a day after Ms. Wagle passed away, the results of the HSSCE board examinations were declared. Among them was Irfan Shimphighar, from Hamara School, and who was in the very first batch of students when we began our collaboration there, almost a decade ago. He scored an impressive 89.5%. The result would have gladdened the heart of Madam Wagle so much!

Irfan might well have got a similar score even if he hadn’t been learning music and playing an instrument all these years. It is impossible to turn back the clock and assess his academic performance without the intervention of the music education he received, and continues to receive.  But there are huge extra-musical benefits accruing from an education in music which are extremely useful in academic performance: important life lessons such as discipline, perseverance (practice makes perfect in music and elsewhere as well), the rewards of incremental progress at any given task, etc. When you play an instrument, you are only as good as the sound you are able to produce. No amount of money power or influence can ever change that, or help you to produce a sweeter tone, better intonation or phrasing. This can come only from hard work (with proper guidance, of course) and nothing else. These lessons can be extrapolated not just to school and college, but for life.  Madam Wagle understood this.

It turned out that her brother, the freedom fighter Dr. Pundalik Gaitonde was a friend of my own father during Goa’s Liberation struggle. Madam Wagle was not one to flaunt her family or her own life history, but it would sometimes come up in conversation, and the vignettes from the trajectory of her life mirrored the story of an India emerging from British rule and later of Goa from the Portuguese. The stories of life in Canacona in the 1940s, and her later years first in Mumbai and then in Goa were fascinating, and I regret not having written them down. I hope others have.

An emotional farewell to you, Madam Wagle. We’ll all miss you terribly, but will continue to work by your principles and example.

(An edited version of this article was published on 6 May 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)