Day 1: Morning rehearsal (Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/ Zubin Mehta); NCPA, Mumbai 30 March 2011

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It is a crisp March Mumbai morning as I hail a cab somewhere near Colaba causeway, and ask the driver to take me to Nariman Point. Where in Nariman Point?, he asks me once we are on our way. NCPA, I retort. He’s never heard of it. I use the Air India building as a reference point, and his eyes light up with understanding when they meet mine through the rear-view mirror. It never ceases to amaze me how many SoBo (South Bombay or Mumbai) cabbies live in absolute ignorance of what by default is the city’s centre, the  pinnacle of cultural excellence. It’s like a New York City cabbie not knowing where Carnegie Hall, or the Lincoln Centre, or the Met, are located. Perhaps it is less a comment on the collective ignorance of Mumbai’s taxi-drivers than it is on the sad fact that events at the NCPA are so exclusive and highly-priced that most patrons have no need of the lowly cab.  

I’m in Mumbai expressly to attend the rehearsals of the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, here for two nights, all the way from Florence, Italy, under the baton of Mumbai’s very own Zubin Mehta.

I have tried unsuccessfully to get a ticket, any ticket, at any price, to any of the concerts, by phone from Goa. D’oh! I ought to know by now that the NCPA’s archaic box office allows no telephone bookings, certainly no credit card transactions. No siree, you get your whatsit down to the box office 5 minutes after it opens (particularly for a sell-out concert series like this one) and join the serpentine queue that has a population roughly five times the capacity of the auditorium (a mere 1100!) and say a little prayer. If you don’t, you just cannot get in. I’ve been in serpentine queues for previous Mumbai concerts, so I really ought to have known better. 

After a short long-distance tête- á- tête with NCPA Box-OfficeMan, I am asked to ring the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation, where a lady named Kamal listens to my predicament with the greatest empathy, and soothingly offers to hold rehearsal passes for both mornings. And so here I am.

The rehearsal is meant to start at 10.15 am, but I get there at 9.30, well in advance As I pay off the cabbie, I find that I am the earliest, save for one of the MMMF staff, who assures me I’ll be allowed in, even though I don’t yet have the passes to hand.

Presently we are let in. Luck is on my side, and in under 10 minutes, I have a ticket for the evening concert! Things are beginning to look up already.  

We are seated a fair distance away from the stage, between rows Q & X.

At 10.15, just a few “early” birds from the orchestra are onstage, going through their paces. The rest of the orchestra files in slowly (jet lag? late night?) and soon that most heavenly of man-made disorganised sounds, the orchestral warm-up, takes over. I pick out the trumpet-player going over a passage in Mahler 1; he then suddenly breaks into the Mexican hat dance.

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The rehearsal begins in earnest at 10.33, after perfunctory speeches from orchestra manager and NCPA management have been dispensed with.

Mahler 1 is first up. The trumpeters do their off-stage fanfare, and then quietly creep back to their places. Mehta speaks to his orchestra in chaste Italian, drawing murmurs of proud approval in Gujarati and English from the audience. “How many languages do you think he knows?” whispers a Parsi lady to another during a rehearsal break, and they try to tot up a figure.

I wish we had been sat closer, so we could better follow the rehearsal cues. 

Mahler 1 is one of Mehta’s calling cards. I have heard him tackle this work at least twice before, in India alone, with other visiting orchestras (if memory serves correctly, it featured on the programme with the New York Phil in 1982, & again with the ECYO in the late 80s or early 90s).  I hear a Mahlerian tune but do not recognise it from the Titan. Is this another Mahler work on the programme? The concert programme doesn’t say so. [My homework later tells me that it is Bluminenkapitel, the Flower chapter, the original second movement in Mahler’s First Symphony, often omitted at concert performances. I cannot remember if Mehta had conducted this version of the Titan before]. 

The double basses are positioned to the left of the stage, the harps to the right, cellos in the middle, first violins to the extreme left (front of stage), second violins & violas mirroring them to the right.

A lone double bass starts the Frère Jacque theme in a minor key, at the beginning of the penultimate movement, over the tick-tock of the timpani. He prefers to stand, so he plays with a low endpin.  The rest of the orchestra takes up the round. The music that then follows has a strong Jewish flavour, and is abruptly hijacked in another direction as a section of the orchestra morphs into a klezmer band, complete with drum and cymbals. It could have done with a tad more chutzpah, I felt.

Mehta runs through portions of the last movement, “the sudden cry of a deeply wounded heart”. I love the way Mahler forcefully wrenches his way back into the home key in a blaze of glory and fanfare.   

A short break, and it’s time for Verdi’s Sicilian Vespers overture. The quiet opening in the strings is reminiscent of Beethoven’s Fate motif, but one “dot” shorter (U in Morse code, instead of V), and is echoed by the snare drum. The overture has all the elements of Verdian drama: a fire-and brimstone passage for tutti orchestra, a sotto voce questioning phrase, menacing even, in the strings, and a beautiful bel canto passage for cellos. There’s even a Rossinian touch (a tune so catchy that it just sticks in your head and refuses to leave, played several times by the various sections of the orchestra, each time just a tad accelerando, until there’s an explosive climax). Great stuff, and superbly played by this orchestra, unashamedly betraying both its operatic pedigree and its Italian roots.

 

Tchaikovsky follows after another break, and chairs and stands are rearranged to make room for soloist Arabella Steinbacher. I have never heard her before, live or on recording, and have only vaguely heard of her, so I am expectant.

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She is dressed casually, in a red top and black trousers very relaxed. In her profile in the programme brochure, it is mentioned that she currently plays the “Booth” Stradivari (1716). I try and get a closer look with my opera glasses (actually, they’re binoculars more commonly used for birdwatching, but they serve the purpose just fine). She has positioned her chin-rest over the tailpiece; she does not use a shoulder-rest, but has an improvised cushion strapped onto the back of her violin.

The orchestra begins the first movement of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, Steinbacher waits for her cue.      

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When she makes her entry, her tone is silken and sweet. However the lady to my right evidently seems not to think so. I hear her companion ask: “What do you think of her?” “Very bad! Where did Zubin pick her up from? The only good thing about her is her looks!” she replies with crushing finality.

Hmmm. So there, Strad magazine (which dubbed her New York city debut in 2006 “a particular highlight of the month”) and New York Times (“finely polished technique and a beautifully varied timbre of palettes”). I gently tap her into silence.

The brass sound a little “ripe” in the tutti sections of the first movement, at least to my ears, where I am sitting. 

The second movement is muted bliss personified. The Finale is technically perfect, but lacks a certain degree of fresh excitement. Hard to inject into such a familiar work, so perhaps the problem lies with me.

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Last up is Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony, for the following evening’s concert. This is another of Mehta’s favourites. The string forces are as follows: first violins 10, second violins 8, violas 6, celli 6 and basses 3.

Once again, I wish I could overhear what is being discussed between conductor and orchestra as the work is being rehearsed. I’ve played this often with the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra, and learned a lot from our own conductor Alan Hazeldine about the genius of this symphony. It would have been great to have been able to listen to Mehta’s interpretation of it, and his instructions to the players.

The second movement could have been even quieter in the piano passages, and the contrasts in volume down to subito piano could have been more dramatic. Could there have been even more clarity in the string voices?

The last movement is quickly rehearsed, only portions of it. The orchestra respond, and seem to have an easy camaraderie with Mehta.

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It is now almost 12.45. The orchestra disperses, but a cello quartet stays back, and rehearses the prelude to the aria “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca. The playing is nothing short of divine. Mehta goes through the short passage a few times, conversing with the cellists in between.

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At a few minutes to 1 pm, the rehearsal is well and truly over. I move closer to the stage just to for the sheer thrill of being in proximity to such a fine band of players, only to find that the security staff are about to confiscate my bag that I have left on the seat. I hurry back to claim it, and leave, but happy at having a ticket for the evening safely in my pocket. 

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