Tag: ncpamumbai

The Rachmaninoff Connection

A cornerstone of concert repertoire, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini continues to resonate with audiences across the world. Ahead of their concert with the Symphony Orchestra of India, renowned conductor John Axelrod and the young virtuoso pianist Alim Beisembayev take us through the intricacies of this popular work and explain why it is special to them. 

When Niccolò Paganini wrote 24 Caprices for Solo Violin between 1802 and 1817, little did the Italian violinist and composer know that the last caprice of this collection would lend itself to scores of variations by notable Romantic-era composers, including Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms. Among them, Sergei Rachmaninoff ’s interpretation of the famous 24th caprice, written in 1934, continues to captivate both performers and audiences. Titled Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, Rachmaninoff’s composition for piano and orchestra premiered later that year at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Leopold Stokowski and with the Russian composer himself at the piano. Rachmaninoff’s work comprises a set of 24 variations in a single movement and follows the tempo of a typical concerto with a slower middle section flanked by a fast-paced beginning and ending. 

Amid the sparkling symphonic concerts and recitals of the SOI Spring 2023 Season, this is one that is looked forward to for several reasons. On 19th February, the renowned American conductor John Axelrod will make his debut in India with the SOI for a performance of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 “Pathetique”. Wedged between the two, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is expected to set the tone for a rapturous evening. Kazakh-born pianist Alim Beisembayev, winner of First Prize at The Leeds International Piano Competition in 2021, will join the SOI for this section of the programme. Aside from the level of genius associated with Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody, the work is incredibly significant to both Axelrod and Beisembayev. 


For the American conductor, who was scheduled to conduct the SOI in the spring of 2022 only to have his trip cancelled due to the pandemic, the rhapsody is especially momentous. Born in Houston, Texas, the conductor has held many a prestigious post—from Artistic and Musical Director of the Royal Seville Symphony Orchestra to Principal Guest Conductor of the City of Kyoto Symphony Orchestra and Principal Conductor of the Bucharest Symphony Orchestra; he continues to hold the latter two posts at present. The dynamic conductor tells us that he remains particularly connected to the work that Rachmaninoff wrote at his Swiss summer home Villa Senar near Lake Lucerne for many reasons. “Rachmaninoff lived in Lucerne where I was Chief Conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and Music Director of the Lucerne Theater from 2004 to 2009. I still live in Switzerland but on the French side in Lavaux. Yet, no matter where, Rachmaninoff’s music is what echoes from the Alps and lakes for me,” says Axelrod, whose inclination for perfectly pairing music with food and wine led him to host the Culinary Concerts of Chardonne that feature award-winning musicians and the best of Lavaux wines. 

“The rhapsody holds a special place in the repertoire for all pianists. These 24 virtuosic variations, themselves based on Paganini’s 24 Caprices, are fiendishly difficult, and it is not surprising that the ‘Devil’s Violin’ and the medieval chant ‘Dies Irae’ are associated with this work. It is a late work for Rachmaninoff, after his enormously successful career as a soloist, composer and chamber music performer,” Axelrod explains. “The main theme seems like a rather simple melody played by the soloist, even in octaves between the two hands. But then, it never stops until the final surprising staccato note to make the final ‘wink’. When Rachmaninoff premiered the work, he set the standard by which all other versions are judged (and there are over 400 recordings!),” he says. 


The Kazakh-born pianist Beisembayev had wished to play the rhapsody since he was a teenager. Some years later, in September 2021, he would perform and win First Prize for this very work at The Leeds International Piano Competition with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Manze. The Guardian called this young, promising graduate of The Purcell School, a “worthy winner” with a “real musical personality”. Currently completing his master’s degree at London’s Royal College of Music, he has performed with the likes of the Moscow State Symphony and at venerable venues like the Royal Festival Hall and Wigmore Hall. “This work has a special place in my heart. I first played it with an orchestra in 2018, so I was delighted to bring it back to Leeds in 2021 with a more experienced point of view,” says Beisembayev who will harness his technical prowess and impressive musical interpretation skills to give life to Rachmaninoff ’s expressive masterpiece with the SOI and Axelrod later this month. 

“It is a highly original work of brilliant writing for piano and orchestra. The two parties work with and against each other creating the most vibrant and energised atmosphere. Although it is named Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, it is not to be mistaken to be inferior to a full concerto. The only difference is the form of the work which consists of 24 variations, where each one melds into another, either with witty and subtle differences in character, or significantly contrasting changes but always beautifully blended,” says Beisembayev, breaking down the composition. 


If Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody is of immense importance to musicians to date, it is the well-known 18th variation in this composition that continues to strike a chord with both, the performer and listener. “It is the highlight of the whole piece for me—always emotionally moving and the coda (including variations 19 to 24) is just a great burst of energy,” says Beisembayev, now 25, ahead of his first visit to India. Variation No. 18, tender and ripe with emotion, also represents a memorable occasion in Axelrod’s life. For one, he met his wife, a Russian, when he was conducting this very work in Moscow in 2015. “Our eyes met and we smiled at each other and cupid shot his arrow. Of course, Variation 18 was to become our theme. But most of all, when our son was born in 2018, he was very late in his birth. We tried to induce labour, but nothing worked. I suggested music as our soon-to-be-born listened to music throughout the pregnancy. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 didn’t work nor did Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I thought even the timpani of Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 would help. But then, remembering our meeting, and his Russian heritage, I said Variation 18. Within seconds, he was born. Therefore, it is our theme and I am very proud to share it with your orchestra and audience,” says Axelrod. 

Beisembayev shares this enthusiasm. “I’m excited to play with Maestro Axelrod whose work I admire very much. It is always a pleasure for solo pianists to collaborate with new musicians as we learn so much during the process and I look forward to the partnership,” he says. Anticipating the collaboration, Axelrod is well aware of the level of musicianship that the prize-winning Beisembayev comes with. To witness Axelrod and Beisembayev perform Rachmaninoff’s spectacular work which brims with significance for them, personally and professionally, should be special—a performance that they too look forward to enjoying with both the SOI and the audience. 

Works by Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky will be presented by the SOI under the baton of John Axelrod on 19th February at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. Alim Beisembayev will be the soloist in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini 

This feature was originally published in the February 2023 issue of ON Stage by the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai. ON Stage is the monthly arts and culture magazine of the NCPA. 

Music that moves

The Symphony Orchestra of India and its founding music director Marat Bisengaliev have worked closely with Welsh composer, multi-instrumentalist and conductor Sir Karl Jenkins over the years. We speak to Bisengaliev to learn about his longstanding association with Jenkins ahead of the SOI Spring 2023 Season that includes the India premiere of Jenkins’s Requiem. 

Back in 2017, Karl Jenkin’s fantastical Alem, The Universe was presented across two evenings in September at Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. Originally commissioned by violin virtuoso and Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) co-founder Marat Bisengaliev for the Expo 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan, the work for choir and orchestra enjoyed a spectacular international premiere presented by the SOI and Living Voices choir under the baton of Jenkins himself with soloists including Bisengaliev. The long-standing association between Bisengaliev, the SOI and the celebrated Welsh composer and conductor was conspicuous at these performances at the NCPA. The ease with which Jenkins straddles musical genres—from Western classical to folk and jazz—was palpable too. 

Aside from his ability to write music that draws from various cultures, Jenkins has enjoyed commercial success in the field of advertising. His compositions for the television commercials of De Beers and British Airways are hard to forget, as is the central theme song of the Delta Airlines commercial which Jenkins effortlessly developed into what would become his most celebrated choral work Adiemus. Written in 1994 and performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the commercial song was released as the title track on the 1995 album Adiemus: Songs of Sanctuary. With classical music as its foundation, the composition is tinged with African and Celtic melodies. 

Jenkins isn’t one to break barriers or be novel for the sake of it. “I don’t aim to please people. Even if I did, I could never guess what they like. I’m true to myself and the style that I write, and it does happen to communicate with people — which is my greatest aim, really,” said Jenkins in an interview with ON Stage in 2017. It’s hardly surprising that the composer has enjoyed the status of having been in the UK Classical charts for 18 years and is widely recognised as one of the most performed living composers, as per a global survey in 2011. 

A remarkable bond 

Bisengaliev and Jenkins have enjoyed a longstanding association that goes back to a period prior to 2005. “I had heard a lot of Jenkins’s music on the television, but I didn’t know who had made it at the time. I asked Chris Craker, my producer at Sony BMG, who told me that it was Jenkins and that he knew him very well. I asked to be introduced to him. At the time, I was with the West Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra through which Khushroo got to know me in London,” says Bisengalievrecalling Mr Khushroo N. Suntook’s visit to the U.K. when he heard the violin virtuoso for the first time. He invited them to India and this eventually led to the creation of the SOI. 

Back in London, one thing led to another and Bisengaliev found himself at Jenkins’s personal studio Mustache in the Soho district armed with the a recording of Jenkins’s own Palladiofirst movement of Elgar whichBisengaliev he had recorded it with his orchestra in the Kazakh city of Uralsk shortly before the meeting. with the orchestra he had founded in Kazakhstan in 2003. “After the first meeting he asked if we were available to do a recording of a composition he had writteat London’s Angel Studio. I managed to get the support from Air Astana in Kazakhstan and eventually brought my orchestra to London,” says Bisengaliev, who travelled to Wales and London to be closely involved in the orchestral parts prior to the recording.

The recording in question turned out to be Jenkins’s classical work Requiem that he had written in 2004. It would go on to become one of his most highly acclaimed albums. The premier of Requiem took place at Southwark Cathedral in London in 2005 with the West Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra and soloists like Clive Bell on the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute), Catrin Finch on harp, Nicole Tibbels (soprano) and Bisengaliev on violin.  

Light in lieu of darkness

A requiem, especially in the Roman Catholic church, is a mass for the repose of the souls of the dead, and many a composer has used this idiom for centuries. Jenkins’s Requiem, dedicated to his late musician father, integrates Japanese haiku with the movements of the Catholic mass for the souls of the dead, and is performed by a choir and orchestra. “In general, I have set the usual Latin movements but in keeping with my usual trait of drawing from other cultures, I have also set five Japanese haiku ‘death’ poems. Such poems are usually to do with nature, have a single idea, and consist of seventeen syllables divided 5-7-5 over three lines,” says Jenkins on the website of his publisher Boosey & Hawkes.

“One can think of it as a beautiful expression of life and death,” Bisengaliev tell us. “It incorporates the Oriental way of thinking about death—that death is not tragic. It can be something that’s pure and spiritually eternal. You’ll notice that his work is different from any other requiem because of the lightness with which it looks at the concept of death. Death is treated as something that’s not the end of the cycle in Japanese and Buddhist traditions. His work shows us that death can be looked at as the beginning of a new life, a reincarnation that’s not typically dark.”

Jenkins and the SOI

When the SOI was established in 2006, Jenkins’s works found their way to the NCPA. The Welsh composer’s Cantus Insolitus was part of the SOI’s repertoire in its very first season. Many still reminisce about the opening of the Spring 2009 season with the Karl Jenkins Anniversary Concert, where Jenkins first presented his music in a big production with the SOI and Living Voices choir at the NCPA. The programme included Adiemus: Songs of SanctuaryPalladio, as well as Sarikiz, one of the many violin concertos he has written over the years for Bisengaliev. “Working with the SOI was wonderful and Marat suggested we use the bansuri instead of the quena for a special Indian sound,” Jenkins later said in an interview with ON Stage about the 2009 performance. 

The following year, in 2010, two of Jenkins’s works were performed at the opening concert of the SOI’s ninth season. Music aficionados, both those inclined to Western classical music and otherwise, were left in awe of the compositions. “Jenkins manages to incorporate the best of all worlds. He doesn’t view music as purely classical and is easily able to use elements of folk music too. He makes us realise that music doesn’t need to be put in a bracket. He writes music that’s truly democratic and loved by the majority,” says Bisengaliev.  

A full circle

Next month, at the India premiere of Requiem, Jenkins will bring his holistic vision to the stage. There will be more than one choir as per usual, including the Living Voices choir, the NCPA adults’ choir, the Bangalore Men, Capella Bangalore and Delhi Chamber Choir. Reflecting Jenkins’s signature cross-genre and experimental style, a children’s choir with students from the SOI Music Academy will sing the haiku sections instead of female voices, while a bansuri will replace those parts written for Japanese bamboo flute. Bisengaliev, who has worked relentlessly to piece together the mosaic of choirs, soloists and the SOI at large, will conduct the Requiem and will appear as solo violinist on Jenkins’s compositions including Air and Energy prior to it. “Jenkins writes music that’s incredibly spiritual and for the heart and not the head. Even in Japan where’s he’s popular, his music is sold under healing music. I do feel that his music heals,” says Bisengaliev. Bringing together over 150 performers, this much-awaited concert will reflect the true manner in which Jenkins’s music serves as a unifying force, both literally and metaphorically. 

This article was originally published in ON Stage, the monthly print magazine of the National Centre of Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai

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