14/09/2016 10:53 AM IST | Updated 14/09/2016 12:32 PM IST

10 Years Of Symphony Orchestra Of India: A Journey Worth Celebrating

A decade on, the NCPA's pet project still doesn't turn over a profit, but is evolving into a world-class orchestra that is young, exciting, and eager to experiment.

NCPA Mumbai
Associate Music Director Zane Dalal leads the world premiere performance Zakir Hussain’s 'Peshkar', with Hussain as the soloist. 'Peshkar', a concerto for tabla and orchestra, was the first piece commissioned by the SOI.

In the empty, 1109-seater Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, the largest of the auditoriums within National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) in South Mumbai, the members of the Symphony Orchestra of India are rehearsing Paganini's 'Violin Concerto No. 1'. They sound note-perfect, with not an instrument out of place, each member playing in perfect sync as though they could do this in their sleep.

British conductor Martyn Brabbins, making his India debut, leads the 30-piece orchestra calmly but with a sense of purpose, often pausing proceedings to explain to how he wants, say, the first violins to come in with a certain amount of force at a particular bar while also directing the woodwinds to take it down a notch simultaneously.

As the rehearsal continues, I move to one of the green rooms with Marat Bisengaliev, the musical director of the SOI. We settle down and begin to have a chat but the room we're in has a speaker that's picking up the orchestra playing on stage and, while it sounds beautiful, it's just way too loud to conduct an interview. While they figure out how to deal with that, we move to a quieter room and he starts telling me about how this "impossible, crazy journey" began, exactly 10 years ago.

It was in December 2003 that Khushroo Suntook — then the vice-chairman, now the chairman of the NCPA — visited London and watched Bisengaliev play at St James's Church, Piccadilly. The Kazakh violin virtuoso, who had spent most of his adult life in the Western world, was at the time playing with a couple of orchestras from his home country.

Later, the two met for tea in central London. "He asked me, 'What do you think about creating an orchestra in Mumbai?'," relates Bisengaliev, who adds that he remembers being excited but also thinking of the idea as outlandish. A full-fledged symphony orchestra in a country with no tradition of Western classical music and no conservatories? One with a centuries-old tradition of its own classical music that has a hard enough time getting attention from listeners in a culture dominated by popular music, both Indian and international? This was going to be very, very hard.

NCPA Mumbai
A scene from Puccini's 'Tosca', one of the SOI's fully-staged opera productions.

He confirms that it was. "We had plenty of support, but also many detractors," he says. Even more than a year later, after SOI debuted in 2006, there were many who'd dismissed the whole endeavour as a 'one-time wonder'. Today, a decade since its inception, it is an orchestra that has successfully pulled off operas like Puccini's Tosca, a ballet like Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, four well-received international tours (with standing ovations aplenty), and genre-bending experiments with the likes of tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and jazz-fusion banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck.

Bisengaliev, who has played with many of the world's top orchestras, ranks it as his favourite, and not just for obvious reasons. "It's young; it has a special energy; it has a very interesting mix of styles and nationalities," he says, adding that currently, members of the SOI hail from more than 20 countries around the world who reside in Mumbai for at least 10 or 11 months a year. "There's a reason we continue to attract some of the world's best conductors and soloists."

NCPA Mumbai
Internationally-renowned Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit following his first performance with the SOI in 2013. Maestro Dutoit returned in 2015 to lead a highly-acclaimed performance of Dvořák's 'New World' symphony.

This 'special energy' is also what had appealed to conductor Zane Dalal who, in February 2007, had arrived from Los Angeles (where he resided) on a short holiday to Mumbai. At the insistence of an uncle, he swung by the NCPA to check out this new homegrown orchestra — with great skepticism. "I'd spent much of my career working with orchestras in England and the United States and it seemed ridiculous that I'd come back to India to work with one," he admits, having joined the conversation while Bisengaliev excuses himself and tends to other matters.

He remembers asking for 20 minutes with the orchestra, as its conductor, during a practice session he happened to be at. "I was amazed. They were marvelous!" he says. The renowned conductor and organist, who had never dreamt of moving back to India, found himself joining the SOI full time within three months and now spends a large chunk of time residing in Mumbai as its associate musical director.

The SOI has often faced criticism for including fewer Indian members — at the very least there have been 9; at one point, there were 15 — than a truly 'Indian' orchestra should have but it isn't one they take seriously.

The journey so far hasn't been easy, of course. During its initial years, the SOI was plagued with funding difficulties. "To say running an orchestra entails an enormous cost would be an understatement," says Suntook, in a phone conversation. "To say it's more expensive and harder to do in Mumbai than in most places around the world would be even more so."

Instruments, for one, are a huge expense. "Most musicians don't carry their instruments with them, especially here in India, where the weather may damage them," he says. "So not only do we have to provide them with top-quality instruments, many of which have to be imported, but they also cost a lot. A good piano, for instance, costs more than a crore. Then, you also have to maintain them. Fortunately, at the NCPA, we have plenty of space."

Convincing musicians from all over the world to spend the better part of the year in humid, polluted, and traffic-addled Mumbai is another challenge. What makes them stick around? According to Suntook, the answer to that is a mix of the NCPA's reputation, the growing reputation of the SOI, and the overall hospitality they receive. "The musicians who come to the NCPA enjoy the warmth they're treated with here — members often take them shopping or on trips to Goa," he says. "In most other parts of the world it's very straight — you come, you perform, you pack up, and leave. It isn't like that here."

Why do Indian film composers feel the need to record with orchestras abroad when there's a perfectly good one right here in Mumbai?

The SOI has often faced criticism for including fewer Indian members — at the very least there have been 9; at one point, there were 15 — than a truly 'Indian' orchestra should have but it isn't one they take seriously. "I remember, when I arrived here, the Indian musicians we had were sitting right at the back," says Dalal. "Now, they sit right at the front and they're playing beautifully." According to him, that criticism would only be valid if Mumbai were a city with at least three conservatories, each with at least a 100-year-old tradition of excellence, churning out at least 50 top-class professional musicians a year. "No orchestra functions like that. This isn't some sort of flag-waving pastime; it's about finding the best. The New York Philharmonic, for example, is full of Russian émigrés."

"I audition and look out for Indian musicians all the time, but the quality of the orchestra must remain top-notch," says Bisengaliev. His main hope is that the NCPA's Special Music Training Programme, launched in 2012 to offer training to talented young prodigies, will produce many more homegrown players in the future.

NCPA Mumbai
(L-R) Zane Dalal, Khushroo Suntook, and Marat Bisengaliev.

The three claim that the orchestra is now at a point where they can play just about anything. Would they open to, say, doing movie scores? After all, there has been a resurgence in live symphonic scores in the film industry — one recent example is the Marathi movie Sairat, which recorded its score in Los Angeles. Why do Indian film composers feel the need to record with orchestras abroad when there's a perfectly good one right here in Mumbai?

Dalal agrees that, for "the longest time", they avoided positioning themselves for scores because they didn't want to get known as "a Bollywood orchestra". "We were in the process of becoming the real thing," he reasons. "The problem with a lot of Bollywood music is that it's a) not very challenging and b) requires techniques like glissando that are not in sync with the kind of music we play. So, we had to shut that out and become excellent at what we do."

Now, however, the SOI is more open to such collaborations. "It's crazy for them to go to Prague or wherever when the orchestra is this good, in my opinion," he continues. "As long as the scores are good and we're given equal recognition, we'd be most happy to do it."

Their tenth season, which began on Monday and is on till the end of September, has many highlights — guest soloists include the renowned Hungarian violinist Kristóf Baráti and 12-year-old Kazakh piano prodigy Sanzharali Kopbayev. While tickets to performances are fast selling out, Suntook dismisses any notions of the SOI being a profitable venture. "It's impossible to make a profit, and this is true worldwide," he says. "These sort of things depend on fundraising and generous benefactors to continue existing. That has always been the case."

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