Author: Beverly Pereira

In the swing of things

Over the course of three evenings, 24 stellar international musicians will descend upon the Tata Theatre as the NCPA International Jazz Festival 2022 makes its long-awaited return later this month

Bouncing back from the setbacks of the pandemic, it would not be inaccurate to say that 2022 is all about making up for lost time. At the NCPA, the phenomenal programming of a bevy of fantastic artistes is an indicator of the great revival. For one, the NCPA International Jazz Festival, the much-awaited annual celebration of jazz at its best, has returned after a long wait and with it comes a dizzying array of acclaimed musicians to match. 

A legacy lives on

The festival will open right where it left off three years ago. Those present at the 2019 edition of the festival, when the Mingus Dynasty Quartet turned it all the way up, truly know to expect nothing less. This edition will welcome the Grammy-winning 14-piece Mingus Big Band — a collective that celebrates the compelling music of virtuoso composer, bandleader and bass player Charles Mingus who died in 1979. Featuring a rotation of fine jazz musicians who push the limits of their instruments, the band was nominated for six Grammys and won for their album Live at Jazz Standard in 2011. Like the Mingus Dynasty Quartet, the big band was formed under the artistic direction of the composer’s widow, Sue Mingus, who sadly passed away in September this year. “I have worked with Sue since 1999,” says Albert Sun, booking agent and tour manager of the Mingus bands. “To witness the passion and dedication she had for her mission to promote Charles Mingus was infectious.” 

The year 2022 coincides with Mingus’s birth centenary and the band has been playing at festivals and prestigious venues alike. Drummer Donald Edwards, one of four musicians who will return to the NCPA, feels honoured to be able to carry forward the legacy of the multifaceted musician. Also returning is Abraham Burton, tenor sax and member of the Mingus bands for the past 25 years, who says, “The passing of Sue is a tremendous loss for the jazz community and a deeply felt void for those of us who knew her personally. She was an extremely intelligent woman, a writer and, truly, a poet. When you study the history of this music, you become aware of the obstacles, sacrifices and hard work endured by the great musicians before us. I feel fortunate to be a part of this lineage carrying forward a message through this rich art form. This is Mingus’s centennial, and we intend to celebrate the lives of Charles and Sue Mingus with a powerful charge.”

That some of the finest musicians on the scene make the great Mingus Big Band what it is, is a given. Pianist Theo Hill will return to the NCPA too, as will Alex Sipiagin on trumpet. We will see for the first time the band’s music director Boris Kozlov on bass, Earl McIntyre — who has performed with Mingus —on the bass trombone and tuba, and a stellar selection of veterans and next-generation musicians on saxophones, trumpets and trombones. One can expect impactful melodies and rich, thick harmonies in the music inspired by social and political events. There will be a nod to different genres ranging from the blues and gospel to Latin and classical alongside tributes to Mingus’s favourite musicians and jazz solos to boot. Material from The Charles Mingus Centennial Sessions, the band’s 2022 release, will also find its way into what can only be expected to be a very special and meaningful concert. As manager of the Mingus Big Band for over 20 years, Sun knows all too well what touring as a big band entails. “As difficult as it is, the rewards, when you see the response to the music, is so gratifying. I’ve worked with several bands in my career, and this is the only one where I can truly say everyone checks their ego at the door for the sake of the music. It takes a special kind of musician to stay involved with this band. That is some of Sue’s magic, to wean out those who couldn’t cut the mustard for the sake of Charles and the wellbeing of everyone on the team.”

Jazz meets Jamaica

Grammy-nominated jazz pianist Monty Alexander will take to the stage with an ensemble of four marvellous musicians for the second act of the festival. The Jamaican-born, US-based pianist, whose repertoire spans a broad range of classic jazz and Caribbean expressions—the American songbook and the blues, gospel and bebop, calypso and reggae—is tinged with sounds of his homeland. “It is my pleasure to invite the audience to go with me musically around the world because when I play, I draw on my own personal inspiration of the exciting adventures I’ve had in my life. Yes, my heritage of Jamaican culture is at the forefront of all that I do and yet my original love for American music started with the great Louis Armstrong “Satchmo” who I met when I was ten years old,” says Alexander, who soaked in the music of legends like Nat King Cole and other greats at a very young age. 

Alexander has recorded more than 75 albums and has been touring relentlessly over the years; since 1976, he has performed 23 times at the Montreux Jazz Festival. At the NCPA International Jazz Festival 2022, he will perform with his bassist from Canada, Luke Sellick; New York-based drummer Jason Brown, adept at everything from Caribbean rhythms and contemporary styles to classic American swing; English trombone player Dennis Rollins, also of Jamaican heritage, who will bring his flair for ska and reggae to the table; and guitarist and electric bassist Joshua Thomas, another musician with Jamaican roots who will embolden all the rhythms Alexander would like to put forth at the concert. “A part of my palette is rhythm, the kind of rhythm that makes one tap their foot or shake their body to it, and to bring out melody sections. But the main point is to bring upliftment to everyone, including myself,” says Alexander. The audience can expect to be treated to material fromLove Notes, his latest and only album to feature his own vocals and which includes classic interpretations of jazz greats suffused with sounds from the island. 

Sleek and sublime

The virtuosity will shine through on the last day, when the Thilo Wolf Jazz Quartet takes to the stage for the festival’s finale. With a repertoire that spans a mix of the American songbook and Wolf’s own compositions, the ensemble includes musicians from the rhythm section of Germany’s famed Thilo Wolf Big Band, including Norbert Nagel (reeds), Christian Diener (bass) and Jean Paul Höchstädter (drums). The quartet will play swinging, driving and melodic jazz, characterised by its liveliness and bolstered by the great joy of playing and improvising. “It is important to take the audience with us in the concert and to interact and establish a sense of closeness,” says Wolf. 

Over course of his illustrious career, Wolf has worked closely with many a vocalist for both his big band and quartet. This time, the quartet will be joined by Johanna Iser, known for her tremendous musicality and vocal flexibility. “Her range of musical abilities naturally inspires me as a composer, arranger and bandleader. I have worked with many great singers, but Johanna’s flexibility is unique. Whether it’s a quartet, big band or symphony orchestra, something exciting and special always comes out,” he adds. 

With the Thilo Wolf Jazz Quartet, Iser, signed with Modernsoul, a publishing partner of BMG, will bring to the mix her ability to merge musical motifs and virtuoso scat singing. “The audience can expect a vibrant, playful mixture of classic jazz standards including high-class instrumental and vocal improvisation as well as individual, modern interpretations, and stunning arrangements of classical standards that they might have never heard before. There will also be a performance of personal songs that members of the band have written together,” the Bavaria-based singer tells us. “So, this will be a colourful soundscape that perfectly suits the ear of a well-experienced jazz standard lover as well as an audience more oriented towards the modern.”

The NCPA International Jazz festival 2022 will be presented on the 25th, 26th and 27th November at the Tata Theatre. 

*This feature was originally published in print in the November 2022 edition of ON Stage by the NCPA, Mumbai. 

Music beyond borders

Taufiq Qureshi’s exploration of the African djembe in the context of Indian classical music has kept the musical tradition alive and made the genre relevant and accessible to newer audiences, all the while leaving a mark on world music. We speak to the percussionist to learn about his connection with the djembe and the many ways in which he interprets rhythm through sound and cultures. 

Taufiq Qureshi may have been born into a family of tabla maestros. But it’s hard to imagine the ace percussionist anywhere other than behind a djembe. It makes sense then that rhythm seems to know no bounds for Qureshi, for it was a bond established the moment he was brought home from the hospital as a newborn. Growing up in a home reverberating with the sounds of the tabla, or ‘naad’ — his father Ustad Alla Rakha and brother Ustad Zakir Hussain practiced riyaz on the daily for hours on end — it became second nature for the young Qureshi to try to replicate those sounds on all sorts of surfaces. At the age of ten, under the tutelage of his father, he went on to learn the repertoire on the instrument for many years before he would come across the djembe. 

“I was always looking to define and transpose all that knowledge and repertoire that my father taught me by way of the tabla on to some other surface. I had been attracted to the bongos, drums and even R.D. Burman’s voice percussion since my childhood days,” says Qureshi, who describes his tryst with the djembe as an instant connection. He had tried all sorts of percussion instruments including the congas that “produced too much of a dead sound” for his liking, the bongos and even the tarbuka, both of which had too small a head to produce the mighty bass, mids and highs that drew him to the djembe in the first place. 

A drum for everyone

Shaped like a goblet with a hardwood body and drumhead covered in rawhide, the djembe can create a wide range of pitches, namely the bass (low), tone (medium) and slap (high), by striking and stroking different areas of the head. The instrument, said to have originated in Mali in West Africa as far back as the 12th century, has been an integral part of daily life and rituals in West African countries for generations even as its popularity reached far beyond. For the Bambara people in Mali, the word djembe translates to ‘everyone gather together in peace’. While there are several origins of the word, they all symbolise the idea of communal gathering and harmony. 

The word djembe translates to ‘for everyone’, Qureshi tells us. If we are to consider the appreciation he receives for his traditional solos rooted in Indian classical music spanning a little over an hour most times, we’d be pressed to agree that the instrument and its sound indeed resonate with all. Whether it’s in India or on prestigious stages at venues like Carnegie Hall and South Bank Centre, Qureshi continues to bring his unique touch on the African instrument to both Indian classical and fusion concerts. This, and the fact that Qureshi has scores of students in India and abroad who are well on their way to learning Indian classical rhythms on the djembe. 

Also a notable composer whose pioneering technique and style is all the rage in studios, he has composed award-winning advertising jingles, and even recorded and arranged background scores for film tracks — the most recent was for the film Brahmastra. His album Rhydhun released in the year 2000 is indicative of the impact that his masterful exploration of the intricacies of Indian rhythms on a non-Indian instrument has on world music. He as also played with John McLaughlin’s Remember Shakti in the remarkable album Saturday Night in Bombay (2001). 

A confluence of cultures

Qureshi’s own fusion ensemble Surya stems from his experiments with the indigenous African instrument back when he studied at St Xavier’s College. By this time, he had already been playing the tabla with Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia among other stalwarts. Starting out as a college band, Surya reached new heights when Qureshi brought in exemplary musicians including singer Shankar Mahadevan, Salim Merchant (piano) and Sridhar Parthasarathy on the mridangam. “We’ve also been fortunate that Surya has had my brother as well as classical vocalist and sarangi player Ustad Sultan Khan in special editions,” says Qureshi, who has performed with the outfit across India and in Dubai, too. The music of Surya is rooted in Indian classical and jazz fused with influences of world music like Latin, Afro, folk, Middle Eastern and even pop and Bollywood for that matter. Other than Qureshi on the djembe as a constant, Surya has seen a roster of musicians on instruments ranging from the electric guitar and sitar to the sarod, harmonium and keys. 

Preferring to call it a collaboration and collective effort rather than a band, Qureshi tells us that every one of the performing musicians’ contributions are immense, both melodically and rhythmically. Even when it’s his own composition, the musicians are given a free hand to contribute. Qureshi’s limitless exploration of rhythm is also seen in the body and vocal percussions that he is known to weave into the music of Surya. “It’s a tradition that’s become a part of my repertoire. The breath itself is an instrument that can create rhythmic motifs. Voice and body percussion is very primal. I’ve tried to take this rhythm and transpose it outside of me,” says Qureshi, who breaks into a series of vocal phrases as we speak, starting with using his breath in a percussive manner before moving on to the double voice technique, or throat singing, used by the Tuvan monks.

Musical meanderings

Improvisation is another crucial element that defines Surya. “Our music predominantly depends on spontaneous improvisation which is the essence of Indian classical and jazz music. Both these schools of music are marked by improvisations where the head is fixed but the rest happens right there and then. Therefore, a piece we might have performed a month ago will never sound the same if we had to perform it in the present. There’s so much live interaction happening between the musicians.”

The compositions are classical based, meaning there’s a raag, or scale as it is known in Western music. “There’s a proper raag-based melody and the taal is also of a time signature maybe of say ten or seven beats, apart from the usual 4/4 and 6/8. The improvisation happens according to the raag and taal which is based on the Indian classical structure. But what happens in the improvising is purely influenced not only by Indian classical but also by jazz, rock, pop, Afro, Latin and so on. Because there are three percussionists, there’s a lot of rhythmic interaction taking place where sometimes we’ll just veer towards a Latin or Middle Eastern rhythm. There are question-answer scenarios happening between the percussionists which people tend to love,” he explains. 

Speaking about the upcoming concert at the NCPA later this month, Qureshi says that the show titled ‘Conversing Streams’ is all about different streams of music coming together as one. It is also very much a conversation in which the musicians will converse with each other using rhythmic exchanges. Aside from Qureshi on the djembe, vocal rhythms and other percussions, the concert will present Sarang Kulkarni on sarod and electric sarod (Z ROD), Kaushiki Joglekar on keyboards and harmonium, and Qureshi’s son Shikhar Naad on the djembe and additional percussions. 

“I would love the audience to come with an open mind,” he says. “Very often, I’m asked whether we’ll play something new. To be honest, we try our best to make our music sound new even though we may have derived it from a well-known raag or taal. We will do our best to make it sound unlike anything people may have heard or experienced before. But whether we are successful will depend on the audience and whether they come in with an open mind.”

Conversing Streams will be presented on October 15 at the Tata Theatre (NCPA Mumbai)

This feature was originally published in the October 2022 issue of ON Stage, a monthly magazine produced by the National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai (NCPA)

Long live the Operetta!

Operetta, a precursor of the modern musical, is often considered less serious than opera. We delve into the history of the ‘lighter’ side of opera to understand why the form continues to thrive in musical theatre of the 21st century. 

Operetta emerged in the second half of the 19th century as an off shoot of the French opéra comique, German Singspiel and even Italy’s commedia dell’arte. While opéra comique is akin to a full-length stage work with tragic plots (think Carmen) and Singspiel more of a light-hearted music drama, the operetta can be thought of as a shorter, lighter version that tackled topics ranging from the satirical to the romantic and from the comic to the absurd. Falling somewhere between an opera and a musical and differing in scale and complexity from opera as we know it, operetta is a form of musical theatre that blends song with orchestral music, spoken dialogue and dance. 

Some of the most notable operetta composers include Jacques Offenbach, Johann Strauss II, Franz Lehár and the due Gilbert and Sullivan. From the Merry Widow to Die Fledermaus right up to The Mikado and the nautical-themed H.M.S. Pinafore, operettas continue to enthrall, albeit as sparkling new productions in a world far removed from the 19th century.

Origins of the operetta

French composer, conductor and librettist Louis-Auguste Florimond Ronger, better known as Hervé, might have written the first operetta (L’ours et le pacha) back in 1842, but it was the German-born French composer Offenbach who is widely regarded as the father of the form. Offenbach wrote over 100 operettas between the 1850s and the 1870s, successfully taking the art form to new heights and stages beyond Paris. In 1850s France, the genre gained recognition as a light-hearted alternative to operas and mainly to satisfy the need for shorter works at a time when state-funded stage works were given a preference. Theatrical composers were up against the French government, which forced them to limit the number of speaking and singing characters to just two artistes. Still, Offenbach is said to have flourished at the time. Robert Planquette and Charles Lecocq were also notable; the French composers wrote popular operettas like La Fille de Madame Angot and Les Cloches de Corneville.

Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld), Offenbach’s first full-length operetta written in 1858, was considered a true hit not only in Paris but also far beyond. The composer took the genre all the way to the US, Austria-Hungary and England. His influence reached England by the 1860s, when Gilbert and Sullivan composed Cox and Box (1866) in response to the Offenbach’s Les deux aveugles (1855). 

Even as Offenbach staged some of his works in Vienna in 1861, his popularity was short-lived as the entertainment-hungry public had begun to turn their attention to Viennese composers who had begun to write operettas of their own. Austrian composer Johann Strauss II, also known as the “Waltz King” remains one of the most famous operetta composers in the German language. His 1874 work Die Fledermaus (The Bat) would go on to become the most performed operetta in the world. Strauss the Younger of “The Blue Danube” fame wrote 16 operettas in his lifetime, all of which enjoyed successful premiers. His works were marked with a signature Viennese style of waltzes, marches and polkas. 

A play on plots

Operettas can be described as the ‘lighter’ sibling of the grand opera, both in terms of music and dialogue. But it also has much to do with the fact that operettas are based on more frivolous and sentimental plots, oftentimes tinged with parody, satire and wit. The orchestration, however, was just as imaginative and the librettos, always supreme. Offenbach’s Ba-ta-clan (1855) was a hit one-act operetta that told the story of Che-i-noor, or China, being ruled by three Chinese who turn out to be a Parisian trio in disguise. Not only was it a satirical take on contemporary politics, but it also challenged the conventions associated with grand opera. 

Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S Pinafore parodied English party politics and the Royal Navy through the operetta’s comic plot that focusses on romantic liaisons between members of different social classes. In Die Fledermaus by Strauss II, we are treated to a rather ludicrous plot that involves mistaken identities, a masked ball, a character dressed as a bat and elaborate schemes with a few white lies thrown in for good measure. 

Operettas can well be considered the forerunner of the modern-day musical, even as both forms of musical theatre simultaneously existed in the early part of the 20th century. The genre had now reached far and wide, including Mexico, Cuba and the United States even as it thrived in the countries of its origin. Fresh adaptions of classics by Strauss II, Gilbert and Sullivan and Offenbach laid the groundwork for a new genre that would soon take over. Oklahoma!, for example, took America by storm with its commentary on social issues expressed as the perfect amalgam of song, dance and spoken dialogue. It’s safe to say then that the operetta had given birth to the musical as we know it; the musical had become a new genre in itself. 

Next month, a fully staged production of Die Fledermaus directed by Hungarian film director and screenwriter SzinetárMiklós is set to arrive at the NCPA. A production of the Hungarian State Opera, the beloved operatic masterpiece has been a part of the Hungarian opera’s repertoire for over 100 years. The fresh rendition of Strauss II’s comedic tale, still among the most successful musical dramas of our time, is one that’s not to be missed. 

A fully staged version of Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss II will be presented by Hungarian State Opera on 12th, 14th and 16th October at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. 

* This article was first published in the September 2022 issue of ON Stage, the monthly arts and cultural magazine by the National Centre of Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai.

With the World on a String

A weeklong music camp, hosted by Child’s Play India Foundation (CPIF) in partnership with the NCPA and the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI), presented a golden opportunity for young violin and viola players in Goa to interact with and learn about chamber music from the SOI’s string musicians. 

On a late summer’s day in May this year, a group of 11 budding musicians were immersed in plucking and bowing their violins and violas. Ranging from eight to 18 years, they were a part of a weeklong music camp organised by Child’s Play India Foundation (CPIF) in Panjim, Goa, in partnership with the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) and the NCPA. Three string musicians from the SOI travelled from Mumbai to Goa for the violin- and viola-intensive camp that drew in participants from various corners of the coastal state. The camp involved individual lessons as well as coaching in duos, trios and quartets for chamber music, and interactive music appreciation sessions. 

Led by Dr. Luis Dias, CPIF was established in 2009 as a registered music education trust to instil positive values and provide social empowerment to India’s disadvantaged children through imparting classical music lessons. Today, CPIF teaches violin, viola, cello, recorder, transverse flute and piano to around 60 children across three locations in Goa. Besides a choir project of an additional 40 children, the foundation also started the Camerata Child’s Play India orchestra of senior students, teachers and local musicians, and the Junior Camerata Child’s Play made up of younger students. 

Where it all began

If the idea behind the foundation’s offerings is inspirational, the story leading up to its inception is just as special. Dr. Dias, Founder and Project Director of CPIF, is a fourth-generation doctor with a specialisation in gynaecology and obstetrics who first practiced in India for a decade and then in the U.K. for another. He is also a musician, having trained on the violin since the age of five. Years of practise, exploration and exposure led him to question why his own country was not producing more professional musicians trained in Western classical music. Then, the idea to make accessible an education in Western classical music to people of all socio-economic backgrounds arrived after he had attended concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2007 that presented two exceptional orchestras comprising underprivileged children from South Africa and Venezuela. A year later, the doctor gave up his career in the U.K. and returned to Goa with his wife to work towards bringing that idea to life. Together, they gave birth to CPIF. 

“Like so many Goan Catholic children of my generation, I had violin lessons very early in life, and like many of my generation, music education was linked to the church. I received music instruction from my parish school, St. Cecilia Music School. I also came from a background that loved Western classical music. If I had had the access to the teaching that the SOI Music Academy imparts today and that SOI musicians get as part of their on-the-job training, I have no doubt I would have pursued music instead of medicine. This is what I want to help future generations of India’s children receive, across the socio-economic spectrum, regardless of their parents’ income,” he says. 

The first of its kind

Ever since the trust was founded, Dr. Dias had stayed in touch with the NCPA and the SOI, looking for ways in which the two could collaborate. “The musicians of the SOI embody many things. They stand for professionalism and the pursuit of excellence in music, particularly in ensemble music-making. This makes them powerful role models for our children to aspire to,” he says, adding that discussions about the possible ways of working together started during the pandemic.

The music camp that ran from 8th to 18th May at the CPIF premises in Goa’s capital city was open to young participants from disadvantaged as well as privileged backgrounds. They were selected via an audition process to assess their ability to sight-read music and to be able to play to a basic to intermediate level. There were, of course, many more youth from Goa and even Bengaluru who were keen to be a part of the camp. But space constraints and keenness on the part of CPIF and the SOI faculty to offer each participant focused attention did not permit a group larger than eleven. 

Building confidence

On the very first day, the mood was abuzz from the get-go as the SOI string players listened to the young musicians play their instrument to gauge the level of playing. Much like an icebreaker of sorts, Day 1 proved to be fruitful. From there on, SOI violinists Averell DeSouza and Prabhat Kishore worked with young players in groups of three, while Deon D’Souza worked with two viola players. “Our aim was to get the participants to play in ensembles, rather than play solo. That’s what they do on a regular basis anyway,” Averell explains.

Days at the music camp spanned 10 am to 4 pm, beginning with instrument tuning and practising of scales, arpeggios, left hand exercises and several types of bow strokes. This was followed by one-on-one lessons with students practising a solo piece. Post lunch, the three string musicians practised duets and orchestral works with their students every day. “I had a great time teaching the violin. Some students were at a great level and were good at reading music. They would go home and practise their musical difficulties and play it again the next day,” says Kishore. Averell echoes him, saying, “I was quite surprised with their level of playing because in Goa there aren’t many opportunities to learn the instrument at a good standard. I was impressed with all the students and most played with the right technique.”

Two viola players tutored by Deon worked on a classical piece arranged for viola. “The level of playing was fairly good,” he says, even as he noted that their understanding and level of playing as an ensemble was poor. “Instilling discipline during group rehearsals was a bit of a task. We encouraged each child to play their part. The style of playing bow strokes was new to them. They did manage to correct some bad technical habits in this short period of seven days,” he says. Dr. Dias was always around and ready to lend a hand to those who needed assistance with music camp homework at the end of the day, while his team handled logistics and was involved in all the behind-the-scenes work.

Interactivity at its best

Widening the range of the camp were audiovisual music appreciation sessions. Led by Deon, these interactive sessions were lively and unlike formal lectures. The first session included an introduction to instruments and sections of the orchestra, which in turn encouraged the young participants to think beyond their instrument and observe the presence of other orchestral instruments. “They were encouraged to listen to the music as a whole instead of listening to their part only. Videos of all orchestral instruments were shown to help them grasp the unique sound they produced. They were further asked to guess the sounds without watching the videos,” he explains. At the second session, they were introduced to important eras of Western classical music with masterpieces of prominent composers from those eras played for the group. Besides, faculty members shared their stories about their journey to become full-time musicians. 

“Children need this exposure to widen their horizons and to be aware of various career opportunities in music for those who are thinking of deepening their study of music,” says Dr. Dias. “The SOI is potentially an enormous resource for music education, and we experienced this first-hand during the week of the intensive, quite exhilarating, music camp.” The week culminated with the youth putting on an enjoyable concert for their families, featuring Felix Mendelssohn’s Adagio from String Sinfonia no. 8 and Pieces for 4 violins, Op. 178 by Charles Dancla. The faculty then enthralled the audience with performances featuring Dvořák’s Terzetto in C major, op. 74 and Baryton Trio Hob. XI:14 by Haydn. 

Dr. Dias says, “We look almost instinctively to the SOI for its assistance. It is the country’s only professional orchestra, and of exceptional calibre. This collaboration with Child’s Play is a form of outreach into Goa, arguably the country’s most fertile ground for the blossoming of music, particularly Western classical music. It makes perfect sense for the SOI to make inroads here, given also that Goa is quite close to Mumbai. We look forward to having even more robust and sustained pedagogic collaborations with them again.”

This feature was originally published in the July 2022 issue of ON Stage by the National Centre of Performing Arts, Mumbai

The Kids Are Alright

Why is opting for a career in music, especially Western classical music, not an easy decision? We learn about the concerns and fears of the parents of three SOI Music Academy alumni who are pursuing or about to embark on a higher education in music overseas. We also speak to the students themselves to understand how to navigate the stressful application process.

Is my child on the path to shaping a career that will pay the bills? Will they be able to survive and thrive in this cut-throat world? When it comes to life choices, parents or guardians will always worry about their children. This is especially true in the world of music, where apprehensions about making a viable career out of a passion are all too real. Marat Bisengaliev—violinist, conductor and Music Director of the Symphony Orchestra of India who established the academy and remains deeply involved in its operations—says, “Yes, parents tend to be hesitant about enrolling their children in higher education institutions, specifically for Western classical music. They worry that their child might not have a sustainable career at the end of it all. But, as we have seen, many of the young learners who have secured admission abroad are now thriving in their practice and will one day embark on their careers. We are hopeful they will return to play in the SOI.”

To this end, the NCPA seeks to create an atmosphere where professional musicians can find employment and display their talent to the rest of the world. “Indians are naturally talented musical people and with the right kind of guidance and dedicated hard work, there’s no reason they cannot do well,” says Mr. Khushroo N. Suntook, Chairman, NCPA.

The realities of a life in music

Cyrus Nallaseth, father of SOI Music Academy alumnus Soli Nallaseth who has been studying at the Royal Academy of Music, London, for the last four years, says, “My wife Simi is an artist and has never had any doubts about Soli pursuing music. Soli too is confident about his career choice, but even today, I wonder about his future and worry. Nowadays, generally, it is not the most musically talented students who thrive but the ones who win major competitions. So, much more emphasis is placed on technical proficiency than musicality, and to win competitions one needs an element of luck.”

Soli has been playing the piano since he was four, and on graduating from the SOI Music Academy, pursued his A-levels at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester at 16. Currently on scholarship in his first year of a two-year Master of Arts degree at the Royal Academy, having received his Bachelor of Music Degree from the prestigious school, the 23-year-old is well aware of the realities of pursuing a higher education in music. “The one thing you do not get is stability; music is a volatile field and studying it and progressing is never linear. Polarising highs and lows are part of the nature of the job, and there is no way to eliminate or circumvent them. That, in fact, is the nature of all forms of art. However, you get to wake up every single morning and go to university knowing that you are about to study something that you are passionate about and makes you happy. On the whole, any difficulties musicians experience are worth putting up with for that privilege.”

Shabnam Minwalla, mother of SOI Music Academy graduate Aaliya Ramakrishnan, also believes that music is unfamiliar territory and that, like other artistic endeavours, a steady income is not always possible. “At least if you play Indian classical music, you know how you compare to your peer set,” Aaliya’s father Vivek Ramakrishnan adds, referring to the much greater number of learners who take it up professionally. “Western classical is daunting because through the years you are confronted with videos of geniuses elsewhere in the world and it’s hard to know where you stand musically,” he says.

Newer avenues

Having applied to some of the finest schools in North America, Aaliya’s choice of courses is a reflection of the many streams music has to offer. She has secured admission to study music composition at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University under a full merit scholarship, film scoring at the only undergraduate programme in the U.S. at NYU, music production at the Thornton School of Music at USC, electronic music at Carnegie Mellon University, and computer music and music for new media at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. “We were tense through the application process because we had no idea where Aaliya stood in terms of music compared to other applicants from around the world. While she has learnt the violin, piano, Solfeggio and the history of music at the NCPA, she has never learnt music composition formally,” Minwalla says of her worries in this regard. It was during a Solfeggio class at the academy, however, that teacher and SOI pianist Aida Bisengalieva remarked, “Maybe, Aaliya will grow up to be a composer.” Aaliya received further encouragement when Bisengaliev, who took her composition skills seriously, played one of her pieces with the SOI.

Indeed, a career in music is not just limited to concerts, recitals or recordings. One can bring their musical skills and talent to the table at recording studios for advertising commercials, films and beyond. Echoing this, SOI Music Academy alumnus Yohan Pastala-Gupte’s mother Vijaya Pastala says that although most Indian parents, including herself and her parents, still worry that a career in music will not be financially viable, “We need to become aware of the opportunities. Today’s world is so different to the one we or our parents grew up in. The opportunities are endless, and Yohan can even get into music production or advertising or become an entrepreneur.” Her son who graduated from the programme in 2021 was enrolled at the academy since the age of 10. Now 19, he’s been studying classical trumpet at the Institute of Music at the Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences in North Germany for the past year. He has had to learn an entirely new language—an aspect his mother worries about. Despite getting into music programmes offered in English, he opted to study under his professor of choice who happens to tutor only in German.

A change of thought

So, what is it that convinced these parents to be supportive of their child’s aspirations and what are the factors that have somewhat quelled their fears? Soli’s father says, “He told me that he loves music and would much rather ‘be poor and happy’ than ‘earn a good living and be miserable’. Khushroo Suntook was instrumental in further convincing me. He gave me an example of a famous musician dad who didn’t want his son to become a musician and what a loss it would have been for the world of music had he not pursued his passion anyway. I am grateful to Mr. Suntook. Marat Bisengaliev, Aida Bisengalieva and Dr. Cavas Bilimoria also encouraged me but my apprehensions still exist.”

When pursuing a career in music, Mr. Suntook believes, “the path taken is as great as it is hazardous since all may not make the top grade. But even if they don’t, they are doing something they love instead of being stuck in a staid job.” Pastala mentions an important factor when it comes to backing your child’s career choice. “The guiding principle for supporting them in whatever they want to do is that they need to be ready to work hard. They need to enjoy what they’re doing, follow their passion, be happy and most importantly, in the end, be able to take care of themselves financially,” she explains, adding that Bisengaliev and the academy teachers have played an important part in encouraging Yohan to pursue music at a higher level.

From instilling in students a love for their instrument and the importance of disciplined, honest practice, right up to guiding them to see the bigger picture about music as a career, the role of the academy at the NCPA is immense. In fact, during the lockdown, students were given access to the Little Theatre so that they could record audition pieces for the admission process without missing deadlines. Minwalla says, “None of this would have happened without the NCPA and the SOI Music Academy. As these were incredibly selective universities and programmes, we were filled with trepidation. Aaliya’s admission is a clear demonstration that the academy is indeed world class. The teachers truly love their students and believe in them. An outstanding music education apart, they have learnt so many things. They’ve learnt to take a deep breath, smile and perform in front of a 1000-strong audience; to play with others as part of ensembles and the orchestra; and to set out on the long path to musical perfection. We grew up with certainties and formulae that no longer always work. In a rapidly changing world, the best possible path that a child can choose is the one that they love and enjoy.”

Navigating the application process

  • Aside from researching a music school’s reputation and course design, opt to
    go where you get the best professor for your instrument.
  • The earlier you start, the better. Prepare everything at least six months to a year in advance. You need to prepare for audition pieces well in advance to be able to record your portfolio to a very high standard.
  • Take time to write a good personal statement for British colleges or essays for American colleges.
  • Scholarships are reserved for those who need financial aid, but they are also offered on merit basis. Browse through websites and write
    to music schools about questions related to eligibility, deadlines or priority considerations for scholarships.

– With inputs from Aaliya, Soli and Yohan

This article was originally published in the June 2022 issue of ON Stage by the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai

Grace under fire

By Beverly Pereira 

Based on Charles M. Blow’s book by the same name, Terence Blanchard’s landmark opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones—to be screened at the NCPA in the first week of June—digs deep to unearth the unspoken struggles and suppressed pain associated with the Black American experience. 

Last year, 27th September marked the first time a work by a Black composer and librettist was staged at the Metropolitan Opera in the 139 years of its existence. After 18 long, silent months of a forced shutdown due to the pandemic, the storied New York institution had finally reopened to the public. The 2021-22 season opener, an opera titled Fire Shut Up in My Bones, is the creation of Grammy award-winning jazz composer and trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Centred around the tension and trauma of growing up as a Black man in the American south, the opera shattered the definitive silence that relates to the Black experience and, consequently, the Black Lives Matter movement which had gained traction only a year prior to this. To further the reach and sense of urgency that the opera and its theme command, it was simulcast as part of the Met’s award-winning Live in HD series that brings live transmissions of some of the greatest operas to theatres across the globe. 

Blanchard’s groundbreaking opera had first created a stir when it premiered at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in Missouri in 2019. An adaptation of the eponymous 2014 memoir by author and The New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, it is set in and around the small, poverty-stricken town of Gibsland in northwestern Louisiana and at the author’s alma mater, Grambling State University. Journeying from Blow’s childhood in the 1970s to his adulthood in the 1990s against the background of dire poverty of the rural African American community and the struggles associated with systemic class and race discrimination, the narrative’s central theme focusses on the traumatic impact that an incident of sexual abuse by a cousin had on the seven-year-old Charles. 

Historic firsts 

Blanchard, whose works are rooted in jazz, is revered for noteworthy scores composed for a long list of Spike Lee films as much as he is for his first opera titled Champion (2013). With Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Blanchard composed a score well grounded in the classical tradition and richly suffused with his signature form-defying jazz. Reflecting his experience in film scores, a notable feature of the opera’s music involves the use of lyrical sweeps that intend to propel the action forward. 

Directed by acclaimed stage director James Robinson and choreographer Camille A. Brown and conducted by the celebrated Canadian conductor and pianist Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Fire Shut Up in My Bones features a talented cast well-suited to the rigours of the compelling opera. With the Met premiere, Brown, who has also choreographed the production, became the first Black director to present a mainstage Met production. Yet another historic first associated with the opera is the fact that it features a libretto by celebrated screenwriter, film director and first-time librettist Kasi Lemmons. Together, Blanchard and Lemmons bring to life a range of emotions—rage, sadness, fragility, loneliness and pain—that play out sensitively across the three acts of the opera. 

The performers are a skilled and seasoned set led by the Grammy-nominated baritone Will Liverman as Charles and celebrated soprano Latonia Moore as Charles’s mother Billie. The sensational soprano Angel Blue, who performed with the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) at the NCPA in 2015, plays an equally weighty role as Greta, Charles’s love interest. Blue’s charisma guides two more characters, Destiny and Loneliness, to represent the forces that shape Charles’s life. Young Charles (known as Char’es-Baby) is played by the talented 13-year-old Walter Russell III who made his Broadway debut as Young Michael Jackson in MJ The Musical and had performed across the United States and Canada as Young Simba in the national tour of Disney’s The Lion King

Turbulent roads 

The opera opens with a college-going Charles driving down a Louisiana backroad with a gun in the passenger seat. The viewer is introduced to characters like Destiny, Char’es-Baby and his mother Billie at the very start as Charles begins reliving memories from his childhood. Adding depth to the writing are the frequent interactions between Charles and his younger self throughout the opera. The harrowing incident of sexual trauma perpetrated by a cousin on the seven-year-old Char’es-Baby unleashes a lengthy process of shame, anger and sadness that spanned years. As times moves on, Charles finds himself struggling in his relationships. While the personification of Destiny challenges him to consider his place in the world, the personification of Loneliness lays claims on him not only with his love 

interest Greta but also with his mother whose love is clear but not always available. Charles must confront a range of internal conflicts depicted as musicalised internal monologues that give voice to the character’s psychological journey to self-acceptance. 

“In the opera, Charles is faced with a brutal choice and looks back on his life to understand what has led him to a potentially life-ruining crossroads,” explains Robinson in the Met’s programme notes. “He questions his role in certain traumatic events and wonders how he could have changed the course of his own personal history. His is a journey of self-loathing, self-discovery, and eventually self-forgiveness. Charles states that he is a ‘stranger in my hometown,’ and I find this idea deeply affecting, for many of us have felt the loneliness of not fitting in or not belonging, even in an environment that should be comforting and familiar.” 

Two phrases in the opera—“Sometimes you gotta’ just leave it in the road” and “I bend, I don’t break, I sway”—resonate with co-director and choreographer Brown who, in her note, says that the lines speak to the specificity of the Black experience but also call upon a universal theme of determination and the need for personal resolution. Step, a social dance rooted in African American history and culture, can be traced back 200 years to West Africa. “It is also embedded in the fabric of Black fraternities and sororities, which were intentionally created as safe spaces when white Greek-letter organisations would not let Black men and women join them,” writes Brown. The energetic style of dance finds a fitting place in the opera. “At one point in history, Black people were not allowed to perform on stages like this one and, even more so, were not able to authentically portray our own narratives. The full spectrum of our real lives [was] unseen. But we did not break. Once invisible, now beautifully and vibrantly visible. Past, present, and future, we sway,” she adds. 

Fire Up in My Bones deals with the complications, pain and trauma specific to Black people and minorities, even as it unearths a range of experiences that holds immense contemporary relevance to race and culture. Ultimately, it is an achievement in storytelling that is testimony to the human spirit’s need for validation and belonging. 

Fire Shut Up in My Bones will be screened on 2nd June at the Godrej Dance Theatre. 

*This piece was originally published in the May 2022 issue of ON Stage by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai