I was thrilled to read in the October issue of the NCPA magazine ON Stage an extremely well-written article “The Way Forward” by my friend Prof. Karl Lutchmayer, in which he discusses what can be done to create more awareness of western classical music in India.
It was heartening to find that he so passionately echoes so many of my own views on the subject, that I have touched upon often, in this column, in other sections of the press including ON Stage magazine and elsewhere, and in my blog. There is so much food for thought in his article.
I’d like to focus in this column upon concerts. Lutchmayer stresses the importance of live concerts and public performances, how a vibrant concert calendar has so many benefits, in cultivating an ever-wider audience, providing inspiration to youth, helping mould teachers and performers, or in his words “a powerful breeding ground”.
This is certainly the motivation of Child’s Play India Foundation in regularly organising not only performances of our children and staff, but also young musicians from the community and visiting overseas performers and teachers as well. Our own concert calendar has two steady fixtures namely our monsoon and Christmas concerts, and we avail of creative opportunities in between as well when visiting musicians come by. They often come to Goa to observe our work and offer assistance. This takes the form of pedagogical sessions with our children and faculty, but quite frequently we get a concert or two out of them in the bargain as well. We endeavour to get as many of our children to quality performances as we can, even ferrying them to and fro if needs be, because a good live concert can hugely inspire, and the performers become positive role models to emulate. It also widens their horizons, in opening young minds and ears to new sounds and repertoire.
Goa has a more active concert calendar than most other parts of India, but there is still much more work to be done to make it even more robust.
Virtually all performers who come to Mumbai would love to come to Goa as well. But there are three big questions to answer. Who will take the trouble to organise it? Where can a suitable venue be found? And lastly, perhaps most crucially, who will pick up the tab?
Organising concerts can be a thankless task, especially if it comes down to just two or three people taking care of the logistics. It takes a cascade of small tasks from booking a venue, creating passes and publicity, putting up posters, flogging the passes, and taking care of hospitality, meals, travel tickets, airport transfer and so much else. They become too onerous when it falls to the lot of just a few; but many hands make light work. It is incumbent upon more members of the community to take the responsibility for little tasks and ensure they are done. If parents could help for example with just putting up posters and ensuring that they, their children and their social circle came to such concerts this would, in an upward spiral, make it easier to organise far more concerts.
A suitable venue can be a major stumbling block. Any performance involving a piano narrows down the options to either a venue namely the Kala Academy which already has a magnificent Steinway grand piano in situ; or one has to transport a grand piano (no mean feat even in the best of weather) to an alternative site. Given that the Kala Academy is more often than not booked-up, and on the rare occasion it is available, the rental cost has become even more expensive, this is a huge challenge. Even more tragically, the Steinway, procured at such great cost, gets underplayed, making its mechanism stiff and unwieldy for those few performers that do ultimately get to play on it. The Steinway deserves to be played more often by the high-calibre performers it was built for.
If a piano is not needed, there are more creative possibilities for choice of venue. Lutchmayer asks us to rethink where concerts are held, and take them where they can be more accessible. This is why, in addition to the ‘usual suspects’ like the Kala Academy or the Menezes Braganza, Camerata Child’s Play India has also performed in a church, in the backyard of a restaurant, in museums, art galleries, schools, and in a village hall. The feedback we got from the last option (the Aldona Institute) was really heartening. Many residents told us it was the first time a classical music ensemble had played in their village. There are several issues we have to address when going on the road, which include transport, making the arrangements at the venue, and spreading the word, but it is something we’d certainly like to do more often.
Lutchmayer also writes: “The flourishing of music is always accompanied by its democratisation, and there can be little room for elitism.” Hear, hear. This is why I am so vehemently opposed to the regressive trend of ‘chief guests and ‘special’ guests and ‘reserved VIP seating’ at concerts, an antiquated ego trip long-since discarded in enlightened society. Everyone in the audience should be valued equally at a concert, not some more than others. The only ‘chief guests’ should be the composers and the music itself. There is nothing more dispiriting than a procession of ‘babus’ and entourage, almost always not even having the courtesy to arrive on time, strutting to take their seat in some prominent position in the front row which ironically can be one of the worst seats to be in if one truly wants to savour the music. Even more ironically, in a venue like the Kala, the music would also quite literally ‘go over their heads’. There ought to be a clue in this year 2016; Matthew 20:16 states “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”
Financial support is crucial especially when the concerts are played by visiting performers of high calibre. If a solo performer, the cost, inclusive of airfare (usually one-way either from the previous Indian city or to the next on their concert itinerary), stay, meals and a performer fee, to say nothing of the rental of the venue, can work up to around Rs. 50,000 to 60,000. It is hard, if not impossible to recover this from sale of donation passes alone. If the number of performers is higher, the cost goes up even further; if a cellist is part of the ensemble, the cello requires yet another airline seat. So a string quartet performance (bearing in mind a respectable ensemble could easily command a performance fee of 1000 euros) takes the cost to the six-figure range in rupees.
So steady patronage from corporations and philanthropists is a necessity, but each concert-goer contributes hugely by their presence, and conversely adds to the financial loss incurred when they don’t attend. It is everyone’s loss, especially theirs.
(An edited version of this article was published on 9 October 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)