I am woken at 7.15 am by a text message, asking me to check on a musician at Catholic Club who might have contracted malaria. I do the math. They’ve hardly been here three days, so it’s highly unlikely. Nevertheless, I hop into an auto (rickshaw) and head off to Catholic Club.
We hit MG (Mahatma Gandhi) Road, only to find the entire stretch cordoned off, and having to take a humungous detour. “What’s going on here?” the driver asks me. You tell ME! You’re the local!
Turns out the Bangalore Marathon is on, and traffic has snarled completely as a result. The driver suggests I get off and walk it. “It’s very close!”, he says. Now where have I heard that before? Oh yes, in Bangalore! And quite often in the last few days. And it probably IS very close. But one minor detail screws things up. Directionally challenged folk everywhere. People here often say “Left” when they mean “Right”, and they absolutely seem to hate to admit not knowing how to get somewhere. Either that or they seem to get a vicarious thrill out of misleading newcomers to the city.
I walk along MG Road, going in the opposite direction to the runners (walkers, most of them). And I’m horrified by the garbage generated by the event. Hundreds, possibly thousands of tiny plastic water bottles strewn all along the route! It makes me wonder: if the Marathon is meant to be an event where socially committed people come together, to create awareness and fund-raise for good causes, how can these same people have no civic sense? Is the Marathon just a gimmick, a publicity stunt for mega-companies? certainly seems so from the banners and hoardings.
Anyway, long (very long, tiring, and a lot of U-turns) story short. I eventually get there, with some time to spare. I confirm my hunch that my colleague doesn’t seem to have malaria, at least not from a history and cursory examination (I must hasten to add I don’t have my bag of tricks with me). I verbally prescribe a thermometer to chart my patient’s temperature, and symptomatic relief for symptoms, washed down with copious amounts of water.
Then it’s the fabled shortcut to St. Euphrasia (I can’t help wondering if she’s the patron saint of proper use of phrases, and if her evil alter ego Dysphrasia seduces all malaprops into her infernal bosom in a deathly embrace) only to find the gate locked. A phone call alter, and a colleague takes my viola and my bags from me from over the gate, and I hop it over the wall. Nothing like a little warm-up before rehearsal, I always say.
More of our colleagues seem to be unwell, so its just us Indians. We go through scales in thirds and begin work slowly on some important viola passages in the last movement of the Dvořák.
Then our mentor Neal arrives, and we carry on. We work out fingerings, and practise under-tempo, and in turn. A long chat ensues, about the importance of the bow, where to place it one the fingerboard, on the flat or tilted, and which part of the bow. a lot of nitty-gritty details, but so crucial to producing an ensemble sound appropriate for a particular passage in an orchestral work. Neal tells us how eventually all this becomes second-nature, and what a joy and how easy it is to play with colleagues who just ‘know’ what to do, and to fall in line in accordance with what the rest of the section is doing. He also tells us that such little things, and attention to tiny details in the score, and really be the deciding factor at orchestra auditions, no matter how technically brilliant a player one might be.
We talk about cultural differences in expression, in how we (in India) seem to fight shy to giving the music everything we’ve got (and this observation is made by us ourselves), and the difference it makes to our playing, and our sound.
We finish early, but hang around to hear my desk-partner Jonah take a masterclass with Neal, to prepare for the Pulcinella. He has a few solos in it.
There’s a lot to be learned by merely observing: different kinds of pizzicatos, for instance. One thing is reinforced for me, however: the importance of knowing a composition in its fuller historical context, its origin, its inspiration, before rushing to attack the individual part in minute technical detail. Technique is of course important, but doing one’s homework first saves one a lot of time, and helps one to tackle a work better.
Jonah also brings along some excerpts that he’s been asked to play at orchestral audition back in Quebec, Canada. Among them are the Brahms Sextet, and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. It is illuminating to watch Neal as he instructs Jonah on the character, the personality that he’s trying to bring out in the Brahms, for instance. How can one possibly know or guess at this from a score, I wonder to myself? From the nature of a phrase, perhaps. But reading up as much as one can about a composer’s life, and the background to a composition certainly can’t hurt.
Neal presents me with some viola strings which I gratefully accept.
At tutti rehearsal after lunch, we tackle the Scherzo, this time with timpani. We repeat the beginning over and over, until Trudel is satisfied (we hope) with the sound. “Light!” he exhorts, referring not to illumination or lightbulbs but to our bowstrokes. And where in the bow to find the sound.
A little work on the opening movement as well. Trudel assures us that water breaks during rehearsal are permitted, but advises us to defer them if we have a solo to play. Drink water, he tells us. Both words are very important: Drink. And Water!
We adjourn early, as we are told we’ll have a ghatam (Carnatic percussion instrument, a hollow clay pot) recital by Ms. Sukanya, a world-famous exponent of the instrument. But there’s a delay, so Trudel (he’s also a mean trombonist! He can really toot that horn!) and Mark Fewer (the violin faculty teacher) treat us to some really cool jazz.
Trudel gives us a truly wonderful Flight of the Bumblebee; they also play the beginning of the Bach Double, jazzed up. They take requests, and do not disappoint. They draw the line at ‘A few of my favourite things’ though (at least that’s what I thought was shouted out).
Ms Sukanya turns up, and casts her spell on the Canadians and on us, first with her prowess at the ghatam, and then with the ‘bol’ (vocal percussion, the Indian answer to scat á la Ella Fitzgerald, but dare I say it, far more intricate and fiendish and more highly evolved). A standing ovation.
One of our Indian violinists Vishwanath also plays Carnatic violin, so he teams up with Ms. Sukanya in an impressive impromptu performance.
It is quite a feat to be able to straddle both styles on the violin, especially as the violin is tuned differently in each case.
And then she invites (dares?) anyone else to sing or play with her. Trudel accepts, and sits cross-legged beside her, while trying to match her, rhythm for rhythm, in what is probably a first-of-its-kind jugalbandi for slide trombone and ghatam.
We disperse, and I’m fortunate to get a jeep ride back. I walk the last 1 1/2 km back, just before the skies open up again. Better luck next time, Rain!