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.
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.
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.
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.
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: