By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Monday, July 4, 2016

When Taj Mahal, Not Performance, Was The Prime Motive

Striving for several years as THE HINDU's Western music correspondent in New Delhi to make visiting classical musicians from the West understand our outlook, preferences and expectations in the context of their performances in India, I had the following twin revelations in due course, thanks to progressive impressions obtained in diplomatic circles : 

(1) Quite often, their true motive for staying for a couple of days in New Delhi was not the concert, which was just an excuse to avail of the free hospitality of their country's Embassy for a different purpose. 

(2) In such contexts, normally they didn't seem to care what our response would be to their stereotyped, ready-made, well-rehearsed programs, which couldn't be altered without taking a lot of trouble. 

But I still expected the organizers to find some effective solution ; and I continued my all-too-familiar argument more forcefully than before :-

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Agra  --  North Indian city, not far from New Delhi, the Capital, world-famous tourist attraction. 
Taj Mahal --  Beautiful 17th-century mausoleum, world-famous tourist attraction.

Enfant terrible  -- person with shocking attitudes (French, 'child terrible').

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New Delhi
25 December 1992

How Western is our Western music?

The flow of live Western classical music in New Delhi is too thin for us ever to have a substantial view of the major composers in the concert hall.  Even over a long period we manage to get only marginal glimpses of the infinite mass of the existing music.  For that very reason, however, every event which takes place here becomes a vital experience for us.  Our acquaintace with Western classical music being largely based -- in most cases -- on recorded versions, these occasional direct encounters tend to make a strong impact on us.  
Our small rations of live Western classical music come mainly in the form of solo instrumental recitals or chamber music performed by duos, trios, quartets or other small ensembles of visiting foreign musicians.  Our opportunities to attend their performances often arise in the context of the brief stop-overs they make in the course of their intercontinental travels for having a holiday in Agra and taking a look at the Taj Mahal.  

Since giving a concert is not always their prime motive for coming here, the visiting musicians do not normally take the small but earnest audience in Delhi seriously enough to assess its preferences in advance and respond to its expectations.  As a result, often we find that the program could have been prepared with far greater concern for our tastes.

In fact, this can be true to some extent even when we feel well rewarded on a particular occasion.  The performance given by the Montreal-based musicians Vladimir Landsman (violin) and Dorothy Fraiberg (piano) last week at the India International Center -- organized by the IIC and the Delhi Music Society -- was an event which produced precisely such an effect. 

Different perceptions

It is the responsibility of the local organizers to alert visiting foreign musicians about the nature and outlook of the normal audience here.  Contrary to what one might expect, the core of the Western music circles in the Capital nowadays consists mostly of Indians, since very few members of the diplomatic corps and their families care to turn up on these occasions (for reasons which are strangely obscure).  Naturally, our perception is far different from that of the average audience in the West. 

We lag behind the Westerners considerably in the matter of perceiving and appreciating the important trends in their music.  We are mostly interested in the music of the classical and romantic periods -- and, out of curiosity perhaps, a little bit in the music of the medieval and Renaissance Europe also.  We are not generally fond of 20th-century Western composers, with rare exceptions like Rachmaninoff. 

In particular, we are allergic to "unconventional" trends like atonal music.  For us in India, Western art music of the first half of this century is still "modern" ;  and our responses to it are similar to that of the classical music circles in the West 30 or even 60 years ago.  We like Beethoven  and Bach, Mozart and Brahms, Chopin and Schumann.  We tend to feel uncomfortable and quite mystified when we encounter composers like Berg or Schönberg, Stravinksy or Stockhausen --  just as many music-lovers and critics in the Western world itself had felt when they had first encountered them.   Therefore, the greater the weightage given to pre-20th-century music, the warmer is our response.

On the other hand, the visiting musicians are generally used to displaying representative samples of a wide-ranging repertoire ;  and since they seldom seem to make any allowances for our prejudices and preferences, they usually tend to administer a stiff dose of strong medicine to us apart from offering some delicious dishes of the kind we relish.

Smooth and rough rides

In the first half of the concert given by the visiting violinist and pianist from Montreal last week, the audience was served a superb meal consisting of Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 8 in G-Major (op. 30 No. 3) and Schumann's Sonata in A-Minor (op. 105).  After the intermission, however, we were given a powerful intravenous injection in the form of Prokofief's Sonata No. 1 in F-Minor (op. 80).  A not unpalatable dessert which completed the menu was a string of jazzy themes from Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess , arranged by Igor Frolov.  

In the light of the overall accomplishments of the major composers, a sonata for violin and piano is just like a boat being rowed along a shallow sea-shore.  The boat-ride, however, is still an excursion into the ocean!  The Beethoven and Schumann sonatas were rendered vigorously and vibrantly by the talented artists, and yet the texture of the sound was smooth like silk.  On the other hand, Prokofief's  sonata -- though composed in the mature and relatively sedate phase of his turbulent career (1936) -- projected many jagged twists and turns with which the average listener could hardly cope.  It certainly showed why the composer was known as an enfant terrible in his own times!

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