Few Indians in Symphony of India, but so what?

Few Indians in Symphony of India, but so what?
This wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last: During the interval of a Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) concert, as we made our way to the centre counter for a cold coffee (NCPA’s signature drink), we ran into old friends, “Isn’t the orchestra sounding good?” I began.” Harrumph,” my friend said, or something similar. “It’s called the Symphony Orchestra of India, but how many Indians are part of it?”

It’s an old question to which I have an accurate answer, arrived at by a great feat of investigative journalism. (I counted the numbers from the list in the programme). The total present strength of SOI is 86 musicians. Of these, 13 are Indian, or of Indian origin. Even by present day standards in the west, where good orchestras have very many international musicians, that’s a very poor proportion.

“What a waste of money!” my friend said, breathing fire into his cold coffee. “They get these foreigners, pay their air fares, put them up in hotels ... Instead of that, if only they had spent the money on a school for musicians, we would have a real Indian Orchestra in a few years.”

“True,” I said, “But…”

Before I could finish, he had moved on. My unsaid sentence would have begun by asking, gently not rudely, why he was here if he felt so strongly about it. The answer, I guess, would have been, “Because I like music.” That’s the reason I was there too. And the reason why 1,000 other people had filled the auditorium to its capacity. Now, if the money had been spent on a school of music instead of forming a largely foreign orchestra, where would we have gone to listen to the divine music of the western repertoire? To our CDs? The net result would have been that my disapproving friend and me, and all the people of our generation, would have been denied the pleasure of listening to a live orchestra, with the bonus of the visual experience added to an augmented aural element. Why should we not have that pleasure?

As it happens, SOI and NCPA to­gether have started various training schemes for young musicians, with special tutoring by (foreign) members of the orchestra in violin and other string instruments. Recently, they have added woodwind and brass teaching too.

Now for SOI’s music itself: I am happy to report that it’s getting better and better. In last Sunday’s concert, Dvorak’s Symphony No 7 under Conductor Rafael Payane, was astonishingly good. The playing was assured, the sound rich and mature. If you closed your eyes and listened closely without bothering about skin, colour and nationalities, you could have been anywhere in the world, listening to a good orchestra playing good music. I, for one, am happy that I have the option of partaking these pleasures instead of denying myself for the sake of future generations.

Antonin Dvorak was Czech, and intensely nationalistic too, though not chauvinistically so. His major influence (and mentor), however was Brahms, and it’s the influence of Brahms and his Germanic music which you will hear in part of Dvorak’s Seventh. But in other parts, the spirit of Czechoslovakia is evident, particularly its stubborn resistance to oppression. The symphony’s final movement ends on a note of triumphant optimism.

Dvorak had great hopes for the Seventh. In writing it, he said, “What is in my mind (is) love, god, and my fatherland. God grant that this Czech music will move the world!” I don’t know about god’s part in it, but this music certainly moved all of us.


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