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Owen Mortimer

Global fusion

12:31, 7th February 2019

The Symphony Orchestra of India’s first UK tour takes place later this month, visiting venues up and down the country with a programme that features a concerto for tabla by Indian percussion superstar Zakir Hussain. Owen Mortimer reports

The Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) has a habit of bucking trends. Founded in 2006, shortly before the global economic meltdown, there was a moment when it looked as if the fledgling ensemble might never get off the ground. ‘Some sceptics gave me six months, others a year-and-a-half,’ says SOI founder and chairman Khushroo Suntook. ‘Yet here we are, 13 years later!’

That may not sound like long, but the orchestra has already amassed an impressive track record of performing and touring. Highlights include fully staged productions of several operas, a Verdi Requiem and overseas visits to Moscow, Muscat, Abu Dhabi and Switzerland. The list of distinguished artists to have worked with the SOI is also notable: conductors Carlo Rizzi, Martyn Brabbins, Charles Dutoit and Rafael Payare, pianists Maria João Pires, Stephen Hough and Barry Douglas, violinist Alina Ibragimova and Heldentenor Simon O’Neill.

All of this has been achieved without a single penny of funding from the Indian state. Instead, the SOI relies on corporate sponsorship, individual giving and a generous legacy from the philanthropist and former Tata director Jamshed Bhabha.

Bhabha, who passed away in 2007, was the founder of the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), where the SOI is a resident ensemble. The NCPA’s 1,109-seat Jamshed Bhabha Theatre hosts two seasons by the orchestra each year, as well as regular visits by overseas orchestras. ‘None of us would have existed here without Dr Bhabha,’ says Suntook. ‘He built this place, sustained it through various challenges and left his entire legacy to the NCPA. We are reasonably well-off, though can’t sustain many large tours.’

The SOI’s Swiss tour in 2016 proved to be a watershed in terms of raising awareness as well as artistic standards, but Suntook has even higher hopes for their UK visit: ‘There are plenty of Anglophiles in India, who look to the success of anything that happens in the UK as being a sign of quality. They say, “If they’ve done well in England, they must be good.”’

Khushroo Suntook: ‘We want to create a very happy orchestra’
Khushroo Suntook: ‘We want to create a very happy orchestra’

The UK tour will also be something of a homecoming, since the orchestra owes its very existence to a chance meeting in London between Suntook and the violinist Marat Bisengaliev. That was at a concert in 2004 given by Bisengaliev’s West Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra. Suntook subsequently invited Bisengaliev and his ensemble to perform at the NCPA, where he asked the violinist to set up a new Mumbai-based orchestra comprising Kazakh and Indian musicians. ‘I was intrigued by the challenge,’ says Bisengaliev. ‘Since then the SOI has come a long way, and working with some of the top conductors in the world helps us grow even further. It is a young orchestra, with a mix of styles and nationalities, which gives it a special energy. We have also started a music school, which is central to our mission and vital for the future of Western classical music in India.’

Meanwhile, SOI resident conductor Zane Dalal has his own reasons to look forward to the tour, which will allow him to reconnect with the country where he grew up: ‘I know it’s a homecoming for Marat, and it’s definitely that for me,’ he explains. ‘I’m particularly happy that we’re playing in Guildford because it’s very close to Charterhouse, where I went to school!’

Repertoire for the tour has been carefully selected to emphasise the orchestra’s East-West credentials: Rimsky-Korsakov’s orientalist fantasy Scheherazade sits alongside Peshkar, a concerto for Indian tabla drums by the virtuoso soloist and composer Zakir Hussain. ‘I think Peshkar will serve the same function that it did for us in Switzerland,’ says Dalal, ‘namely providing a phenomenally high-flying calling-card that tells audiences we are an Indian orchestra. But we’ll also be proving that we have what it takes to play the core repertoire – including Berlioz’s Roman Carnaval Overture, violin concertos by Bruch and Saint-Saëns and Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony.’ Dalal will share conducting duties with Martyn Brabbins, who has worked regularly with the SOI since 2016.

Bisengaliev is similarly enthusiastic about Hussain’s involvement, though has some reservations about performing cross-cultural repertoire: ‘I think the presence of such a big star as Zakir will be a draw for audiences,’ he explains, ‘but in my opinion fusion doesn’t really work. Ravi Shankar may have had a degree of success working with Yehudi Menuhin, but that was because of their celebrity status, not the quality of their music-making. The same goes for Menuhin playing jazz with Stéphane Grappelli: badly!’

Peshkar was originally conceived as a double concerto for violin and tabla, but after several months’ practice Bisengaliev decided to pull out. ‘I realised that however well I played, I would always be number two, because Zakir is absolutely brilliant’, says the violinist. ‘Trying to echo his tabla beats with ricochet bowing on the violin would put me in his shadow. In the end, my solo part ended up being split between the leader and the flute. The result works quite well, though it’s mainly a showcase for Zakir.’

Dalal agrees that fusion can be gimmicky, but his assessment of Peshkar is more generous: ‘It’s true that sometimes you get a situation where an Indian soloist and orchestra are put together unwillingly to make a one-night hit. That kind of fusion leaves everybody feeling unhappy, but Peshkar allows for something quite different. It is pulse oriented, highly characterful and brilliantly crafted to explore many aspects of the Western orchestra. The solo part is not notated but follows a pattern in 16 beats [teental] that Zakir leant from his father [Alla Rakha]. It works because we don’t get in each other’s way, so each segment of the audience can find what makes them happy. It’s a dialogue of complementary elements.’

Peshkar is likely to resonate with British Asian audiences who don’t generally attend orchestral concerts, though Dalal insists this isn’t one of the SOI’s objectives: ‘It’s worth noting that 52 per cent of the population in Manchester is now South Asian, while Birmingham is not far behind at 48 per cent. So it’s not about having a target audience as such – they are the audience!’

Marat Bisengaliev: ‘The SOI is a young orchestra, with a mix of styles and nationalities, which gives it a special energy’
Marat Bisengaliev: ‘The SOI is a young orchestra, with a mix of styles and nationalities, which gives it a special energy’

Bisengaliev’s first step in setting up the SOI was to audition hundreds of local artists. His aim was to create an Indian ensemble supplemented by players from ex-Soviet states in Central Asia, but he quickly realised that he needed to think even bigger: ‘We only found a handful of trainable players so had to invent a crash course to bring the local musicians up to the required standard.’

Next on the agenda was an education programme targeting schools, so for four years the NCPA ran a Suzuki Method programme that introduced several hundred children to the violin. This initiative has now been replaced by a full-time music school for 50 of the most promising students. ‘I wanted to start something that would make an impact,’ says Bisengaliev, ‘and realised that India was lacking a systematic training programme – the kind of system that you might see at the Juilliard or Moscow Central School, with capable teachers training students in a professional manner. Our course follows exactly the same curriculum as Moscow. It’s the Russian system.’

Four years down the line, the first fruits of this project are now beginning to show – and the results are astounding. A promotional DVD created by the NCPA showcases the students performing solo works, chamber music and string ensemble pieces, including a piano trio comprising three sisters aged 14 and under. ‘The children are the thing we’re really most proud about,’ says Suntook. ‘Marat feels that in three or four years the players coming through this programme will be able to join the main orchestra.’ Course fees are subsidised by the NCPA and two students each year are given full scholarships, ensuring there is no barrier to participation for children from low income backgrounds.

Suntook says he is keen to expand the SOI chamber orchestra ‘so we have a core of at least 50 players’, but recognises this ‘can only happen over time’.  For the meantime, Bisengaliev continues to draft in players from overseas. ‘I want to create an orchestra from the best traditions. In my view, the best strings come from the Eastern European bloc. They provide tremendous energy as well as a strong work ethic. On the other hand, the wind and brass traditions from this region have their drawbacks, for example the use of vibrato. The northern European wind sound is much cleaner, which I prefer.’

Suntook serves as chairman of both the NCPA and SOI, which gives him free rein to go about creating the right conditions for such artistry to flourish.  ‘We want to create a very happy orchestra,’ he says. ‘If there is a situation where the artistic credentials are strong, people are comfortable and funding is secure, then I think you have the recipe for a pretty good orchestra.’

The Symphony Orchestra of India will tour the UK from 19 to 25 February 2019, visiting Birmingham, Cardiff, Guildford, Edinburgh and London. www.soimumbai.com/uktour

Top brass: Khushroo Suntook, Zane Dalal and Marat Bisengaliev at the NCPA’s Jamshed Bhabha Theatre
Top brass: Khushroo Suntook, Zane Dalal and Marat Bisengaliev at the NCPA’s Jamshed Bhabha Theatre
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