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IN CONVERSATION

Sound of a hundred violins

WARREN D’MELLO

Marat Bisengaliev, from Kazakhstan, is putting together India’s first symphonic orchestra, in collaboration with the National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai. He talks about the challenges...


Besides creating a new orchestra from scratch, Bisengaliev’s biggest challenge is to create an audience for Western classical music.




Endless possibilities: Marat Bisengaliev (front row, third from left) with members of the Symphony Orchestra of India.

The people of Mumbai love the opera,” declares Marat Bisengaliev. “The storyline is something like Bollywood.” The virtuoso Kazakh violinist is the founding music director of the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI), the first professional orchestra in India. He has been assigned the mammoth task of building a symphony orchestra from the ground up, in a city where Western classical music is confined to a tiny section of the elite who frequent the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) at Nariman Point, the uptown part of Mumbai. It is, seemingly, quite a formidable task for anyone to pull off, but Bisengaliev brims with optimism. This is not the first orchestra he’s put together — he is the founder of the Kazakh Chamber Orchestra and the West Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra (WKPO). Besides, judging from the sold-out performances of the Puccini opera “Madama Butterfly”, Mumbai’s audience certainly looks hungry for more song and dance.

There is no escaping from music at the NCPA. The rooms at the guest house are all occupied by the SOI’s musicians, deep into their daily riyaaz. As we sit in a dark, empty corridor of one the NCPA theatres, low notes from a tuba reverberate in the distance, creating an evocative backdrop for the interview.

So how did the SOI come together? Bisengaliev points out that the orchestra is still in the process of coming together. The SOI was born in 2006, the result of a collaboration between the NCPA and Marat Bisengaliev, and now in its fourth season, is in a dynamic phase of growth. Bisengaliev’s job is by no means easy, with sections of the orchestra to be perfected, new players to be auditioned and groomed, and the orchestral repertoire to be worked on. “We are discussing which direction to go. Should we go with operas which people love or should we have more symphony or chamber music or should we have the ballet? I think we should be diverse and do it all,” says Bisengaliev.

Talent the sole criterion

The SOI has only 10 Indian musicians out of a total of 85. Musicians from Bisengaliev’s WKPO form an integral part of the orchestra, while also playing an important role in the SOI’s education programme. The only criterion for the selection of new players is pure talent. Bisengaliev, who personally conducts the auditions along with a panel of his musicians, has set the bar very high; with an objective to create an orchestra that will have an international presence. Decisions are sometimes quite ruthless. The few players who do get selected go through months of an intensive education programme to give them a more definitive understanding of classical music.

Bisengaliev says he was surprised at the time he was asked to form the SOI, that India already didn’t have an orchestra. He points out how during the Second World War, Kazakhstan benefited greatly from the USSR’s State patronage of culture and the arts. An influx of Soviet players, mainly specialists in piano, strings, and voice, established a strong educational base in Kazakhstan, igniting the tradition for musicians like Bisengaliev. In a contrasting parallel, the British Raj, which gave India the railways, did not leave behind a philharmonic or even a school of Western music. There isn’t a single music conservatory in India that teaches Western classical music in an organised method that incorporates the various aspects of music training: music theory, composition, analysis, music history, and performance techniques. “One of my goals for the future is to establish a Russian system of teaching Western classical music in India. This will form the base of the pyramid, on which, ultimately, the foundations of the SOI will rest,” says Bisengaliev.

For now, an increasing number of Indian musicians who have had a formal Western training abroad, and who now want to return to India have been showing up for audition. It’s better for the orchestra, as less time has to be spent to bring the players up to speed.

As the SOI matures as an ensemble, Bisengaliev is confident that his direction coupled with the influence of the Indian players will give the orchestra its own unique style. “Recordings make or break an orchestra. My main objective is to make the orchestra recordable. It’s what defines the orchestra’s quality. This season we started recording with SONY BMG, and I hope there will be many more recording contracts,” he says.

Spreading out

The next season, beginning in September 2008, will see the SOI performing at venues outside Mumbai. Bangalore, Calcutta, Goa, and Delhi are all on the director’s map. Bisengaliev was quite astonished when he came across some very knowledgeable music lovers in Bangalore who got into a detailed discussion on valuable instruments and their luthiers, after inspecting his violin. Some music fans even had a more extensive knowledge about general classical music repertoire than himself!

Besides creating a new orchestra from scratch, Bisengaliev’s biggest challenge is to create an audience for Western classical music. He notes, "First impressions are very important. The major problem is that there are too many unexciting, average performances, or some that are simply bad. When children attend a bad [classical music] concert, it leaves them indifferent [to that form of music]."

Suitable tradition

The ambitious music director reveals that he would like to establish a tradition of music playing in India. He feels the Suzuki method of teaching is the ideal tool for the dissemination of music. This Japanese method trains children in music at a very early age. It combines a music teaching method with a philosophy, which aims for the total development of the child with the involvement of parents. The instruments are also smaller in size to make it easier on the tiny hands of two and three year olds. One of the SOI violinists, Yuka Honda, who has been trained under the method, will be spearheading the job. “One day, I hope to see 200 five to six-year-old children playing their tiny violins…a spectacle which I’m sure, will move everyone”, declares Bisengaliev.

Unlike many people who see Western classical music as a dying form of music in the 21st century, Bisengaliev remains optimistic for the future, though he concedes that there are limitations posed by India’s geo-cultural vastness. He jokes, “Sting suddenly turns from rock music to baroque music…madrigals. He doesn’t see any future left in what he’s been doing all these years: rock n’ roll. Perhaps he’s right…I don’t know.”

Bisengaliev laughs.

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