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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 November 2019

'I never thought I'd end up in India': The inspiring story of India's only professional western orchestra

Sceptics believed a symphony orchestra would not survive two years in a nation that lacks any conservatory-grade music education. But one has lasted 13.
Zakir Hussain and Zane Dalal performing at Symphony Orchestra Of India- Spring Season 2019. Courtesy NCPA/SOI

It’s a balmy Sunday afternoon in late September, and the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai is teeming with music enthusiasts of all ages and nationalities. But there’s a distinctly international feel here.

The night’s concert starts right on time, announced by a bell, the old-fashioned way, and latecomers aren’t allowed in until the interval. As the Symphony Orchestra of India’s (SOI) performance progresses, I realise I have never sat in a theatre where such silence prevails among the audience – not a single phone rings, no one talks, not even the children, and standing ovations are reserved until the end.

Kazakh violinist Marat Bisengaliev, music director of the orchestra. NCPA/SOI

As well as Irish pianist Barry Douglas’s mesmerising rendition of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No 2, led by Russian conductor Alexander Lazarev, formerly of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, the orchestra sails through the sprightly classic Petrushka by Stravinsky over a thoroughly engaging 100 or so minutes. The ballet is rich in rhythm and spirit, but to hear it via an orchestra and still experience it so viscerally is a testament to the quality of the SOI, and a vision born around 13 years ago to build a professional orchestra in India. “I never thought I’d end up in India,” says Marat Bisengaliev, music director of the orchestra. The Kazakh musician is one of the world’s most feted contemporary violinists and also leads the West Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2003, Khushroo Suntook, chairman of NCPA and founder of the SOI, heard Bisengaliev play in London and after a couple of his performances at NCPA in Mumbai, invited him to set up a chamber orchestra in India.

To say it was a challenge would be an understatement. “We searched the length and breadth of the country for musicians,” recounts Bisengaliev. “At the time, fully trained [western classical] Indian musicians lived mostly outside India. We zeroed in on a bunch of talented adults who were self-taught and put them through an intensive crash course designed specially to elevate their standard, which included theory lessons. They had to become worthy of a place in a symphony orchestra, and the move paid off.”

Over the past few years, the SOI has travelled to Russia, Switzerland, Oman, the UK and the UAE to perform with a variety of artists. In 2015, the orchestra opened the Abu Dhabi Classics season. More recently, the children’s orchestra left such a deep imprint on Noura Al Kaabi, the UAE’s Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, that she invited Bisengaliev to set up a similar model of music development in Abu Dhabi.

About eight of the original Indian members are still part of the SOI, Mark Nunes, 56, being one of them. The Mumbaikar long cherished the dream of playing as part of a classical orchestra, but until the SOI came along, he put his violin and viola skills to use in Bollywood and concerts with the Mehli Mehta Foundation.

Nunes balanced this with a career in finance, which he didn’t enjoy. “I long crossed the age to attend a conservatory, so I am more than content being a professional musician in an orchestra at this age,” he says. And Nunes’s enthusiasm is infectious, his joy immensely palpable. “We learned to produce a different texture of sound, of very high quality. How I play [the viola] now is completely different from my earlier performances.”

Zane Dalal, associate music director of the Symphony Orchestra of India. NCPA / SOI

Without a conservatory-grade music education in India, critics and sceptics said the orchestra wouldn’t survive beyond a couple of years. “The initial challenges were huge,” says Zane Dalal, associate music director of the SOI. “There was no systemic infrastructure to support a symphony orchestra and in this colossal undertaking, we could not follow tried-and-tested steps as we might have done in Europe or even the Far East and the Americas. We had to build the steps before stepping on them and it was not easy. Also, the serendipitous nature of the founding of the orchestra could not have anticipated the global recession that engulfed the first eight years of our 13.”

With this in mind, Bisengaliev set up the SOI Music Academy in 2012. “We’re slowly adding graduate students from the academy to the orchestra,” he says. “Every student wants to be a professional and because the nature of an orchestra is very competitive, the quality of playing has gone up. Every student in the academy gets individual attention; the classes don’t just stretch to 60 minutes, students and teachers stay for as long and for as much as it takes.”

One such young prodigy is Prayash Biswakarma, 21, a violinist who joined the SOI at 17. His sister, Kushmita, is also a part of the orchestra as a violinist (Bisengaliev maintains the team is evenly balanced between men and women). Both siblings grew up loving the instrument, thanks to their father. The Biswakarmas’s induction into the core orchestra is also a win for north-east Indians (they’re from Kalimpong) who have rarely been a part of the mainstream cultural fabric.

In fact, inclusivity is at the very heart of the institution purely for music’s sake. “The art of orchestral performance is all about togetherness,” says Dalal. “The players are connected by an unseen force that can only be felt and grows stronger with time. Our strength is in the fresh approach to music-making brought by our diversity; 26 nations are represented on our roster, and it is probably more necessary and appropriate in our current time to have organisations that naturally tend towards inclusivity and international co-operation.”

Excellence is not a choice but a way of life for those in the SOI. “I didn’t know what a symphony orchestra was before I joined NCPA, nor did I understand symphonies, concertos, or the core of a composition,” says Prayash. “I’ve learned so much here, especially from all the foreign visiting artists. Classical music is the best way to grow and build your ability as a violinist. If you can play classical, you can play anything.”

In a bid to help students such as Biswakarma thrive, solos are encouraged. Biswakarma’s greatest moment was playing Astor Piazzolla’s Bordel 1900. If you think Gen Z’s love for Wagner, Rachmaninoff or Bruch is surprising, Dalal is quick to point out otherwise. “Music for the most part is absolutely universal and speaks directly to the listener,” he says. “I have seen this first hand, in the explosion of Indian music in Europe and the US, and the reaction of women by the well of a Rajasthani village when they first saw and heard a cello. Our job is to break down these preconceived barriers and allow access to everyone.”

To this end, Dalal conducts workshops and masterclasses with students from various schools throughout the year, including with blind and autistic children. “The long-term goal and an exceedingly important one has been to make sure the orchestra was not simply an import, but that it could grow natural roots, connecting it to the fabric of Mumbai, the city we serve,” he says.

Marat Bisengaliev during the 14th season of Symphony Orchestra of India at Tata Theatre. Courtesy NCPA / SOI

Bisengaliev, too, is raring to develop the orchestra and the academy. “The dream is to attract Indian musicians from Europe and the US, as well as make sure the kids in the academy stick with music for careers.”

Of course, there’s still a long way to go. Most importantly, the SOI needs more qualified people managing the academy as well as the orchestra. But the journey has been rewarding, Bisengaliev says, especially as he has witnessed the music scene in India change over the years through the life and growth of the NCPA. “The point has always been to retain high standards of music otherwise people will turn away.”

The Symphony Orchestra of India is performing at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai throughout its autumn programme of events

Updated: October 23, 2019 12:33 PM