To commemorate 15 years of the Symphony Orchestra of India, four regular concertgoers at the NCPA look back at some of their favourite performances and fond memories of India’s first and only professional orchestra
Ever since it was set up in 2006 by NCPA Chairman Mr. Khushroo N. Suntook and violin virtuoso Marat Bisengaliev, the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) has delighted audiences, both new and old. The home- grown ensemble has delivered spectacular performances under the batons of renowned conductors and, in recent years, been a grand success on international tours. This momentous milestone coupled with the reopening of the NCPA after a long, forced closure is reason enough to celebrate with gusto. We spoke to some of our audience members—Western classical music aficionados who have regularly attended SOI performances over the years—to better understand the significance of the existence and growth of the orchestra.
Gerson da Cunha
Theatre & film actor, author and social worker
There were just two city symphony orchestras in the 1940s and 1950s: First, the Bombay Symphony Orchestra with Jules Craen as conductor and Mehli Mehta as leader, and later, the Bombay Philharmonia, now called the Bombay Chamber Orchestra, under Cecil Mendonca. Both symphony orchestras were high-quality and performed great music at the Cowasjee Jehangir Hall at the Institute of Science, Mumbai. I find it hard to recall particular concerts and events served up over the years in the rich and varied fare that the city of Mumbai has enjoyed. But I do remember my first experience of music at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. I stepped into the hall to notice Jamshed waving me to a seat beside him. He was in row ‘J’. “Here is where the sound is best,” he said, “J for Jamshed”. And who was to know better than Jamshed Bhabha himself about the theatre that was named after him. Truly, it was a great sound and a great performance of Mozart’s ‘Eine Kleine Nacht Musik’ played by a superb Viennese ensemble.
I find it difficult to detail what exactly I had heard the Symphony Orchestra of India play when I heard them back in 2006 and forward. But, there is little doubt that they set a new standard in the Western classical music one was listening to. The Jamshed Bhabha Theatre is also hugely different from the old Cowasjee Jehangir Hall, now the National Gallery of Modern Art. I believe that a chamber orchestra is a great idea and one to be encouraged as an economical way of programming good music. For now, it is, perhaps, enough to say that for some of us, a pall was cast over us when the SOI was temporarily unable to perform because of Covid-19 restrictions. With every good wish to the SOI!
Dr. Kashmira Mody
Professor of Economics
When it was announced in 2006 that we were going to have our very own symphony orchestra, I was thrilled. No more would we have to wait for occasional appearances by foreign orchestras (not that I don’t enjoy those performances). Here was an opportunity to regularly see and listen to live performances. The 15 years that I have attended SOI concerts have been special. We have been treated to a wide variety of classical music from different eras and composers; Baroque to Classical to Romantic eras and even music from modern composers. From just the strings to a full-sized orchestra, from combined choirs to operatic soloists, from full productions of operas to opera galas and even a musical theatre gala; we have had the opportunity to see and listen to it all. From the music connoisseur to the beginner, there is always something for everyone. I am not an expert on music, but like most people who enjoy listening to music, I can feel the difference between a good performance and one that could be better. Over the years, our orchestra has definitely improved. The players seem to gel together to give us a better sound each time. We can see and feel the hard work that has gone behind it all.
There are many fond memories of concerts, but the ones that stand out include the most recent one of Scheherazade, the 10 year celebration concert, the 50 years of NCPA gala, Handel’s Messiah, Holst’s The Planets, Wagner’s Ring without Words, Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.4, Rachmaninoff’s PC No.3, Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, Overture from the Thieving Magpie, Mendelsohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, Beethoven’s PC No.5, the encore piece Moliendo Café, and even the concert at the Kala Ghoda Festival where they played the Magnificent Seven theme magnificently! Besides the concerts, what has been interesting are the special programmes arranged to give us insights into the compositions and the composers by SOI’s Associate Director Zane Dalal. The pre-concert talks were a condensed version of these. Of course, the very well-produced programme brochures are collector’s items. Yes, music is the food of life … So, play on SOI … play on!
National award-winning animation film maker, writer & illustrator of children’s books
My tryst with the Symphony Orchestra of India has been relatively recent, but it has nonetheless been quite intense. In all the formative years of the SOI, I was engaged in lengthy animation projects and had in fact shifted out of the city. For me, Western classical music, even with all the great music that exists, was often just really good background music at the time. Then, when I learnt of the existence of a professional symphony orchestra right here in Mumbai, I was fascinated. Thereafter, I attended most concerts over the last few years and was completely blown away. I often sketch at live shows, but sometimes I really cannot seem to do it when I’m at an SOI concert. I am always too stunned, as one would be, when soaking in the energy and vibrations of the music while watching the musicians and conductors who have put in all the hours of work leading up to that very moment. Of course, purely sketching ideas that surface from the music listening experience itself is great fun — the music at an SOI performance actually comes alive, enveloping you and tickling your imagination too.
I must admit — when it comes to knowledge of the music, I am nowhere close to the audience at Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. For me, every concert is both a sensory and learning experience. Still, if I had to mention a few recent SOI highs, many come to mind — like the epic Beethoven 9th, Zane Dalal’s awe inspiring Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scherazade’, the Alexander Lazarev-conducted ‘Petrushka’, the Wagner gala and the gala concert with the Bolshoi soloists, Mikel Toms’ Mozart Chamber concert and even Ustad Zakir Hussain’s experimental ‘Peshkar’. These concerts remain standouts for me, personally.
Youth Director of Rotary Club of India & Portfolio Manager
I feel connected to the NCPA since my school days when I’d regularly attend plays and musicals in English, Hindi and Gujarati. I remember those evenings at the NCPA as nothing but classy and fun. I am a lover of both Western and Hindustani classical music, and used to play the guitar, sitar and a bit of the piano. The Symphony Orchestra of India is undoubtedly the most fabulous and fantastic musical experience Mumbai could ever have. You can understand that it is a product of the vision, passion and hard work of the respected Jamshed Bhabha and, of course, Khushroo N. Suntook. The first SOI concert I had attended was an achievement in itself. Today, the orchestra has grown beyond words to an international standard.
That said, we do need more young Indian musicians to join our very own SOI. We also need more chamber concerts by the SOI, and Prithvi Theatre is a good way to reach and develop newer audiences. Perhaps, performances at colleges could make for a nice and effective way to promote Western classical music in India so that the youth can listen to and understand this grand music. I strongly believe that the pre-concert talks on composers and compositions prove to be very important and enlightening for us all. These talks by Zane Dalal at the NCPA and by Dr. Cawas at Prithvi Theatre are superb as they give us details of the composers, the idea behind pieces, and how compositions evolve with a break-up of each movement. I always look forward to every new season of the SOI at the NCPA. If I had to name a favourite performance by the SOI, it would have to be the orchestra performing under the baton of conductor Charles Dutoit in 2013. The Jamshed Bhabha Theatre and the Symphony Orchestra of India experience is world-class, and we are thankful for their presence.
This piece was first published in the December 2021 issue of ON Stage by the NCPA Mumbai