The classical music world is in celebratory mode at the birth centenary year of Sir Yehudi Menuhin, with elaborate events planned around the world to mark this milestone.
The popular UK classical music radio channel Classic FM began a 20-part series “Yehudi Menuhin: the Master Musician”. BBC Radio 3 presented a week-long (11-17 April) focus exploring his music and life. Those interested can listen online via the ‘Listen Again’ feature. BBC Four will have a documentary “Yehudi Menuhin: Who’s Yehudi?” which hopefully will eventually also be available online soon enough.
Warner Classics label will release 80 CDs, 11 DVDs and a book, all curated by Bruno Monsaingeon. Live Music Now Germany celebrates the centenary with 16 concerts, and its Austrian counterpart has a gala concert in Vienna.
On Menuhin’s actual birthday (22 April), violinist Uto Ughi plays the Beethoven Violin Concerto in Brescia Italy. The Yehudi Menuhin School Surrey has a commemorative festival (1-10 July) featuring present and past students of the school among others. And there’s much more.
I will be writing in the national press about Menuhin’s Indian connection, his love of yoga and Indian music, and his friendship with Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha, and Dr. L. Subramaniam.
Researching Menuhin’s tryst with India revealed that it all began on his first visit here in 1952. I remember my senior friend, piano pedagogue Margarida Miranda telling me about this visit. I am grateful to her for poring over her archive of concert programmes to retrieve information about this historic concert.
It fired my imagination for several reasons. For starters, the rehearsals and the concert were held in Regal cinema Colaba Bombay (today Mumbai). The Regal was part of a trinity, along with Eros and Sterling that represented for me the epitome of cinema-going in my youth. You really had the full movie experience when you went to ‘town’ and ‘saw a picture’ in one of them. And Regal was the best of them in my view.
One movie that stands out in my memory is E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). I still remember the rush of exhilaration as we watched E.T. and a gang of children cycle past an impossibly huge full moon to the heady, expansive background music by John Williams, in glorious stereophonic sound, the finest available in India then.
At the time, I had no idea that great music had been performed live barely three decades earlier, in that very ‘room’. I have since returned to the cinema with the specific purpose of trying to imagine how it must have been, and how a live orchestra would have sounded there.
The orchestra that played at the 1952 Menuhin concert would certainly have filled the stage: there were 20 first violins, 20 second violins, 8 violas, 8 celli, 6 double-basses, 4 flutes, 2 oboes, 4 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets and of course the timpanist. Whew!
The orchestra? The Symphony Orchestra of Bombay, conducted by Francisco Casanovas (the programme describes him as conductor of the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra). I guess in those innocent times, no-one paused to think that the orchestra’s acronym could stand for something else as well.
The programme? It began with a Mozart overture ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, followed by two (!) violin concertos, the Mendelssohn E minor and the Beethoven, separated by the mighty Chaconne from Johann Sebastian Bach’s D minor Partita for solo violin. The audience certainly got their money’s worth!
And what a stellar line-up of musicians! I’ll list here only those who I recognised and would be of interest to readers here. It had Mehli Mehta (father of Zubin Mehta) as concertmaster; the violins also included, in order of mention in the programme, Sebastian Vaz, Adrian de Mello, Mauro Alphonso, Siloo Panthaky, Josic Menzies, Oscar Pereira and Keki Mehta. Among the violas, I recognised the name of Terence Fernandes (who, with Vere da Silva, Keki Mehta and George Lester formed the Dorian string quartet, which was, I am told, Bombay’s first ever string quartet). The celli had, in addition to George Lester, Antonio Sequeira, who later taught cello at the Academia da Música (today the Kala Academy) in Goa. And Mickey Correa headed the list of clarinets. As I write this, I can’t help thinking what an incredible era that must have been, just to have all those musicians of such calibre in the same city at the same time. Virtually all the names I’ve listed are mentioned reverentially even today.
I try to ascertain who must have taught the violinists, for example, for them to have attained such great heights at their instrument. And the answers are increasingly hard to come by. Memories are fading fast, and first-hand accounts are now out of the question. I remember about a couple of years ago meeting Keki Mehta at a concert at the NCPA, and I got his number, with the intention of either dropping in or interviewing him by telephone. I wanted to capture his recollections of playing in the Dorian string quartet. But shortly after that, I heard that he had passed away.
The jazz age Naresh Fernandes chronicles and describes so vividly in his ‘Taj Mahal Foxtrot’ occurred alongside this golden age of western classical music, and all largely within a radius of a few miles in South Bombay. Perhaps we could call it the ‘Regal Minuet’?
(An edited version of this article was published on 17 April 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)