L'affaire Vienna-Madras, about which I wrote in the last two blogs, set my mental clock back and revived strong memories of a similar scenario I had encountered in New Delhi 30 years ago.
In September 1986, I was assigned the role of Carnatic and Western music critic of THE HINDU in New Delhi. How this happened is an interesting story which I shall tell some other time. THE HINDU -- which was (and still is, 30 years later) the dominant and most prestigious English language newspaper in South India, with a world-wide reputation -- had just started an edition in New Delhi ; and Mr. G. Kasturi, the Editor, thought I had the proper credentials to write a composite column reviewing both South Indian and Western classical music activity in the Capital.
As I was writing the very first article in my weekly column, I knew I had an important cause to pursue -- trying to bridge a wide communication gap which seemed to exist between visiting foreign musicians, local/foreign organizers, and the small cosmopolitan community of Western-music-lovers in New Delhi, regarding the preferences and actual expectations of the normal audience in this alien environment. And thus began what soon became an earnest campaign :-
Carnatic/Hindustani music -- Classical music of South/North India.
Zubin Mehta (b. 1936) -- The world-famous conductor -- with deep-rooted connections in Vienna, Tel Aviv, Los Angeles and New York -- hails from Bombay.
FICCI -- Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
Ravi Shankar (1920-2012) -- Indian sitarist with international reputation. (Sitar is one of the twin prime string instruments of Hindustani music, the other one being Sarod).---------- ----------
19 Sept. 1986
Sparkling but short!
An advantage of living in New Delhi -- as in a few other cities like Bombay and Calcutta -- is that one has a chance to hear a certain amount of Western classical music, which is not substantial by any means, but which is not quite negligible either.
Of course, it is only very rarely that we have an opportunity to hear live orchestral music, and this limited fare is provided by the Delhi Symphony Orchestra, which is manned by an ad hoc group of professional and amateur musicians drawn from various sources. We are extremely proud of the DSO, but the fact remains that we don't have access to a world-class Western classical music orchestra.
The performance of the New York Symphony Orchestra here two years ago was a very exceptional event, which took place only because its conductor Zubin Mehta had a compelling nostalgic wish to fulfill. One does not envisage any major orchestra in the world visiting India for the time being, because we don't still have an auditorium in any city with the necessary infrastructural facilities, and such an event may not also be financially viable at present.
The mainstream of live Western classical music in the Capital consists of performances by outstanding individual musicians or chamber music groups visiting from abroad. There is a dedicated core of Western-music-lovers of various nationalities (including Indians) in New Delhi, who eagerly look forward to these occasions and listen to the music with great interest.
But a constant source of frustration for them is that the music offered is by and large severely rationed, in keeping with the Western traditions.
Pleasing but disappointing
No wonder the large, enthusiastic gathering which turned up at the FICCI auditorium last Friday evening to hear a violin-and-piano recital by Igor Oistrakh and Leonid Blok of the Soviet Union was pleased and disappointed at the same time, because the music was so sparkling but the concert was so short. (The event was organized by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations).
The first part of the performance featured two sonatas for violin and piano by Mozart and Grieg, which were rendered exquisitely. Resuming the recital after a long intermission, the artists presented a very short composition by Tchaikovsky, called Meditation -- which ended before one could even start meditating! -- and then three crisp pieces by the contemporary Russian composer Khrennikov, dedicated to Igor Oistrakh.
A lilting Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso by Saint-Saens followed, with its Spanish colors -- and presto, the recital was over! Repeated curtain calls, however, brought the artists back to give a couple of brief encores -- Hungarian Dance by Liszt and a lively polonaise by Wieniawsky.
Perhaps in their own milieu, where they perform frequently, there may be some justification for being so brief. But what is the point of travelling thousands of miles to a foreign country and city where Western music does not flow freely, assembling a set of eager listeners whose appetite for the music is enormous, and then treating them to such frugal fare?
It would be unreasonable to suggest that Western musicians must act contrary to their own established values under any circumstances. But must these values be so very inflexible really? Is it not a fact that when great Indian musicians like Ravi Shankar perform abroad, they do modify their traditional leisurely approach and render much shorter recitals to suit the temperament of the foreign audiences?
On the other side of the coin, would it be wrong on our part to wish that when Western classical musicians perform over here, they could be a little more generous with their offerings and give us much greater satisfaction?