By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Superb Piano Recitals By The Ambassador And The Emperor

In September 1991 -- five years after I had started appealing to the organizers of Western classical music in New Delhi to guide all visiting classical musicians from the West effectively so that we could have substantial sessions of the kind of their own music we really cared for -- I found myself still grumbling about the all-too-short duration of concerts, or about wrong kinds of music from our point of view (as I mentioned in the preceding blogs).   

However, by now I was beginning to realize that it wasn't all the fault of the local organizers, who were often finding it difficult to change the normally rigid and blinkered attitudes of the visiting Western musicians.  And side by side with the unsatisfactory events,  we were also having some very rewarding encounters with foreign musicians now and then ;  and I was always glad to write rave reviews on those occasions, as in the following contexts :-

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New Delhi
15 September 1991

It will stay in memory for a long time!

What are the essential qualifications of a beauty queen?  The best of looks, yes, they are the most important thing.  But certain other points also count, such as a good education, some significant artistic, professional or other accomplishment and an ability to communicate well with people. 

Conversely, what are the basic qualifications of an Artistic Ambassador of a country crossing cultural borders on a global tour?  High accomplishment in his or her chosen art is the most important thing, of course.  But there are also certain other things which count, such as good looks, fine personality, and the ability to speak clearly and well to foreigners in unfamiliar lands.

Judged by these criteria, one must say that Sara Laimon, pianist and Artistic Ambassador of the U.S. to the world this year, is eminently qualified for the assignment.  Not only is she an accomplished pianist, but she looks beautiful :  the very picture of young and healthy America, as we are fond of visualizing it.  Robed in a flowing red gown, she almost looked like the Statue of Liberty.   And Ms. Laimon has a pleasant way of introducing the works she performs, restricting herself to the essentials, well articulated.  If she had been introduced as the reigning Miss America this year, we could well have believed it.

Oh yes, the credentials of the Ambassador were gladly accepted at face value by the select gathering which had assembled to hear her piano recital at the India International Center the other evening, even before she had started striking the keyboard.

Graceful and dynamic

And she did not disappoint us with her performance :  far from it!  Playing entirely from memory, she brought to her efforts an intense concentration which was infectious.  She handled the Steinway Grand with confidence, producing graceful nuances and generating dynamic power with equal felicity.

Contrary to the usual practice of visiting Western musicians, who tend to measure out their music in ounce-glasses like a bitter medicine, Sara Laimon was generous with her offerings.  The concert lasted nearly two hours, with a mercifully short intermission.  She played three sonatas, by Mozart, Berg and Copland, three short pieces by Debussy, and an extract from a Bach sonata for unaccompanied violin transcribed for the piano by Busoni (Chaconne in D Major).

Ms. Laimon introduced the last number with her own mental reservation, saying that perhaps Bach might not like its being played on the piano.  But she need not have worried.  This was the most beautiful work she performed that evening, and it will stay in our memory for a long time.  I am sure Bach would have been very pleased, the way she interpreted his composition on the piano!

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Chakravarti  --  Emperor (Sanskrit).  In Carnatic (South Indian classical) music circles, leading cultural institutions are fond of conferring titles like Violin ChakravartiMridangam Chakravarti, etc., on  very distinguished musicians, particularly instrumentalists.  (Mridangam is a sophisticated double-sided drum, the prime percussion instrument in Carnatic music).  So it just occurred to me,  why not Piano Chakravarti?

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New Delhi
8 November 1991

A splendid performance

Commander of the Royal Order of Nordstjarn (Sweden) . . .  Knight of the Royal Order Of St. Olav (Norway) . . .  Knight of the Order of Danbrog (Denmark) . . .  Grand Master of the Order of Lejon (Finland)  --  these titles represent the recognition accorded by four Scandinavian countries to the cultural achievement of a gifted son of the soil, pianist Kjell (pronounced Kyell) Baekkelund of Norway (b. 1930).

After hearing his recent performance in New Delhi, I am inclined to confer on Mr. Baekkelund the title of Piano Chakravarti ('Emperor of the Realm of Piano').  I am sure none of the 200 music-lovers who heard the recital would dispute the decision -- for the entire audience seemed reluctant to get up and go home after the artist had concluded the program ;  and the warm response induced him to offer not less than three encores.

We were informed that Baekkelund's interests are not limited to music.  Apart from playing the piano, he has also been a newspaper columnist in his country, writing on various topics.  As a performing artist, he has a wide-ranging repertoire which covers classical as well as modern composers (including several Scandinavians), in respect of compositions for the piano and orchestra, as well as works meant solely for the piano.

Whether by sheer chance, or he had been properly advised by the local organizers, or perhaps he had his own intuition of the right kind, the artist did not load his program heavily with modern works  (as he could have done), but offered a conservative selection.  This consisted of a chaconne by Handel, a sonata by Mozart, three lyrical pieces by Grieg, a waltz and a ballad by Chopin, and a suite by Bartók.  It was a menu well suited to the tastes of the average lover of Western music in Delhi.

Intriguing and beautiful

And Baekkelund's performance was splendid.  Powerful cascades of sound alternated with gentle streams, and vigorous waves of sound blended with delicate ripples, to produce harmony of infinite beauty.  Listening to the recital, one felt like being lashed by a torrential rainfall of sound, and yet was somehow rowing over a peaceful lake, admiring a rainbow on a clear sky.  

This kind of music transcends technical excellence, and reaches out to the listener's heart.  No wonder the audience clamored for more!  And the encores were rendered equally well (a couple  of short pieces by Debussy and the Norwegian composer Sinding, and a jazzy improvisation by the pianist).   

With  this concert the artist was concluding a short Indian tour (Bombay-Bangalore-Goa-Delhi) on his way to Bangkok.  How I wish he would break his return journey also in New Delhi and perform once again here!  Let us at least hope that the Indian Council for Cultural Relations , which organized this event, will bring the Emperor back to India sooner or later!

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