Music: Symphony Orchestra of India

Music, such music, is a sufficient gift. …It is enough, it is to be blessed enough, to live from day to day and to hear such music—not too much, or the soul could not sustain it—from time to time.

Vikram Seth, An Equal Music

What Vikram Seth wrote about was perhaps felt by the audience at the inaugural concert of the 15th season of the Symphony Orchestra of India on September 20. Strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion and keyboards played in precision to the movement of Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit’s baton at Jamshed Bhabha Theatre of the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai. Strains of Beethoven’s First Symphony in C major filled the hall, and the audience sat enthralled.

“It completely blew me away,” says Nitin Chandy, sound engineer and co-founder of the True School of Music, about an SOI concert he attended in 2011. “I had gone for Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and the moment the symphony started, my hairs stood up. Listening to the choral voices backed by a strong orchestra was an experience in itself.”

The SOI was born of an idea that occurred to NCPA chairman Khushroo N. Suntook during a walk through London’s Jermyn Street. “We saw a poster pasted on the local church announcing a concert that was being held inside by Kazakh musicians,” says Suntook. “We walked in and were so overwhelmed by the performance that we went backstage to meet the violinist.” It took Suntook two years and many emails to persuade the violinist, Marat Bisengaliev, the other force behind the SOI’s foundation, to come and play in India.

The “not-so-easy-to-please” Bisengaliev was sceptical about the idea of the SOI, says Suntook. Bisengaliev, he says, asked him if he knew what starting an orchestra entailed. But Suntook convinced him of his vision to provide Indian musicians a “platform of excellence” to perform at an international level, and the SOI was formed in 2006.

Since then, the SOI has worked with acclaimed soloists such as Michael Collins, Raphael Wallfisch, John Lenehan, Andrei Gavrilov and Stephen Kovacevich. It has also collaborated with eminent conductors, including Adrian Leaper, Johannes Wildner and Alexander Anissimov, apart from Dutoit and Lior Shambadal, who conducted during this season. In 2010, it became the first Indian orchestra to perform at the grand finale of the fifth festival of the World Symphony Orchestras in Moscow.

Training and managing a western classical music orchestra in a country known for its rich musical heritage is easier said than done. Says Rael Mendes, a pianist and teacher at the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation, who has sung in an SOI production: “While the SOI is great as it gives the audience exposure to world-class western classical music, I wish to see more Indian faces in the SOI.” Only eight of the SOI’s 80 members from 25 countries are from India. Chandy, however, feels that although the numbers are few, the SOI gives talented Indian musicians a rare opportunity to experience what it means to be a part of an international ensemble.

Indigenisation of the orchestra is the main priority, says Suntook. “But it is a really difficult task. Marat and Zane [Dalal, SOI’s resident conductor] have been picking suitably capable Indian musicians. We hope to start a conservatoire soon, which is why we have started our own training programme.” The NCPA offers a full-fledged music education programme modelled on the Russian system, and Suntook is confident that “unless these kids switch to an MBA or a career in IT, they will be good enough to play in the SOI”.

Dalal blames the lack of music schools and conservatories dedicated to western classical music for the reluctance of Indians to take up music as a career. “Music is not something you can do as a hobby,” he says. “Right now, we take Indian musicians who match foreign orchestra standards. This is a serious professional effort. We do not want to dilute it by including amateur talent.” He is confident that in the next 10 years there will be more Indian faces in the SOI.

The main patrons of western classical music in India are the Parsis and the Catholics, especially of the older generation. Most of them have been exposed to it from childhood. As Mumbai-born master conductor Zubin Mehta said, they are “brainwashed with classical music from the cradle”. The real challenge is to develop a taste for western classical music among the youth, who are more attuned to louder genres like pop, rock and hip-hop.


“A taste for western classical music is one that is acquired,” says Dutoit. “Interest in the arts and music should be nurtured right from childhood and the best way to do it is by including it in the education system. Music is, by and large, an emotion. It is meant to bring out feelings, emotions and memories, and not meant to be a hardship on the listener. So, although the listener doesn’t have to know music to accept and enjoy it, it helps to have an audience who is prepared for a concert.”

Says Suntook: “This is a genre that is not easily accessible and has always relied on strong individual patronages. Western classical has never found a rich patronage in India. The last major patron was the maharaja of Mysore who supported the Philharmonic Orchestra in London and the Russian composer Nikolai Medtner.”

The otherwise sceptical Bisengaliev, however, seems to be very positive about the future of western classical music in India. “The middle class here is ever-growing and so is their demand for quality classical music,” he says. “Social media is a great catalyst these days, as it exposes people to quality international music.” What the SOI is striving for in the future, says Bisengaliev, is to deal with concerns voiced by Mendes and others who “see the same people in the audience over and again, every season”. “We are working relentlessly on outreach programmes to bring in a wider variety of people to the concert hall,” says Bisengaliev, pointing out the frequent lectures and music appreciation programmes hosted in the city.

The number of Indian musicians is on the rise, concerts are running to packed houses and the sale of instruments has increased tremendously. The future looks bright, says Dalal, adding that if such progress was possible in six years, a lot more can be done in the future. The stage is set. The instruments have been tuned. Now all it takes is one giant sweep of the conductor’s baton to play a different tune.


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