The Symphony Orchestra of India’s Autumn 2022 Season, with outstanding concerts, recitals and a dazzling opera, concludes with a flourish of applause.
The silence—before the sound of music filled the majestic Jamshed Bhabha Theatre— was heavier than usual for it was after more than two years that the Symphony Orchestra of India played for the season. Across four orchestral concerts with eminent guest conductors and soloists, the SOI breathed life into the concert hall once again and the city rejoiced. October saw the grand production of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. A favourite among audiences across the world, the Hungarian State Opera in collaboration with the NCPA brought the beloved operetta to India for the first time.
Established in 2006 at the NCPA, the SOI is the fruition of the great effort of its founders, violin virtuoso Mr. Marat Bisengaliev and NCPA Chairman Mr. Khushroo N. Suntook, who was valiantly supported by his predecessor Dr. Jamshed J. Bhabha in bringing internationally celebrated musicians to India. With eight musicians making their debut in India, along with an extravagant opera experience, the SOI Autumn 2022 Season goes down as one of the most memorable events in the realm of Western classical music in the city. The repertoire offered the broadest range of works in a single season thus far.
Led by conductor Alpesh Chauhan OBE, the first two concerts featured British piano virtuoso Benjamin Grosvenor and French horn wunderkind Ben Goldscheider respectively. Chauhan’s own selection of excerpts from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, along with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture and Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from the Broadway hit West Side Story told Shakespeare’s timeless tale of the star-crossed lovers across the two concerts. A music critic from Serenade writes that Chauhan led the SOI “with extreme skill and control” and that Grosvenor “is a pianist in a million, barely 30 himself, with an astounding technique and musicianship to boot. His recital was hors concours with an unusual programme excluding warhorses, he successfully mastered Ravel’s La Valse and excerpts from Albéniz’s Iberia.”
Also in attendance was Edward Smith, former Chief Executive of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra who has shared a long affiliation with the NCPA as Consultant to the SOI. “Interspersed with works by Beethoven, Schumann and a solo piano performance of Schubert were contemporary works for horn and piano quite breathtakingly played with such confidence and style to make for a truly memorable experience,” he says about Goldscheider’s horn recital with pianist Richard Uttley. Having known these performers for some time, Smith was confident of the warm welcome they would receive from the musicians of the SOI, and the staff and audiences at the NCPA, which is appreciated by all the international visitors. “It is important that the artistes go back to their countries with tales of both, the increasingly excellent quality of the orchestra and the care and attention they receive from the NCPA. They spread the word, act as ambassadors and encourage fellow performers to make the journey to perform,” he adds.
Smith commends the fine calibre and range demonstrated by the orchestra through the diversity in repertoire which is worthy of any great international music centre. He also talks about the opportunity this season provided to Mumbai to experience unfamiliar territories of music; something that he would encourage the city audience to explore more.
Works of Mendelssohn, Brahms and Beethoven came alive in the third concert with gifted conductor and pianist Jean-Frédéric Neuburger, violinist Sayaka Shoji and cellist Henri Demarquette, who also played an “outstanding evening of trios by Brahms and Schubert” later, the critic writes. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 awaited audiences in the final orchestral concert of the season. “Last among the conductors was the British conductor Richard Farnes who proved a great ally, not only in the Verdi Overture to Nabucco but as an excellent orchestral accompanist to Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, who rose to the virtuosic and melodic challenges of the monumental concerto by Rachmaninoff, making it more than the sum of its parts,” he adds.
Despite the delays and difficulties induced by the pandemic, the entire team working behind the scenes and the musicians of the SOI were quick to jump back into the rhythm of the season. In a world adapting to new definitions of normalcy, new challenges arose this season, such as trouble in procuring visas, handling special documentation and vaccine certification, and the slow return of regular audience members. However, a packed concert hall bustling with music enthusiasts was truly a sight for sore eyes.
Xerxes Unvala, General Manager, SOI & Western Classical Music at the NCPA, emphasises the fine quality of music making that was consistent across all concerts this season. He also points out the welcome development of the influx of new, young audience members, many of whom were introduced to Western classical music in this season. The addition of pre-concert talks by Dr. Cavas Bilimoria had a huge role in achieving a steady stream of new and eager concertgoers. The NCPA physician and amateur violinist with a deep adoration and sound knowledge of Western classical music, Dr. Bilimoria helmed engaging discussions about the programme before each orchestral concert, which were met with a tremendous response.
A nugget of history that he shared with the audience was of Horowitz’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in 1942. Rachmaninoff, who was present in the audience said, “This is the way I always dreamed my concerto should be played, but I never expected to hear it that way on Earth.” Dr. Bilimoria told his listeners that after Kolesnikov’s performance that day, they would be sure to mirror Rachmaninoff’s words of praise.
While the final concert, conducted by Farnes, remains his favourite of the season, Dr. Bilimoria also describes Grosvenor’s piano recital as a once-in-alifetime experience for him. He goes on to admire Chauhan’s clarity of beat, the sensitivity of phrasing and the balancing of the orchestra according to the acoustics of the hall. “The precision with which the percussion and brass section played was absolutely breathtaking,” he elaborates.
With the exception of Demarquette, who has had a lasting association with the NCPA since 2008, this season served as the India debut for all the guest artistes. In its 16 years, the SOI has performed with several internationally renowned conductors and soloists. A towering feat for a young ensemble to accomplish, the SOI has had successful tours in the U.K., Russia, Switzerland, Muscat and the U.A.E. Demarquette says, “The musicians are excellent with an ardent spirit to make music. No matter how long and intense the rehearsals, they want to do their best each time and that’s a beautiful thing.” Neuburger seconds this sentiment by talking about the warm relationship built with the orchestra in very little time. Farnes and Chauhan were equally appreciative of the technique and flexibility of the orchestra.
The opera, with its grand sets, gorgeous costumes and brilliant performances of Strauss’s delightful Die Fledermaus, marked by full-throated singing and the SOI playing a worthy role in the pit, proved to be a fitting finale to the season.
Over 100 performers from the Hungarian State Opera and the Symphony Orchestra of India came together for the first time to create an experience that music aficionados do not often get an opportunity to witness in the country. As the critic aptly concludes, “We know what to expect from the NCPA when at its best form.”
By Aishwarya Bodke. This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the November 2022 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.