The Symphony Orchestra of India’s last show of the season is on Sunday. If you are lucky enough to live in Mumbai, I hope you can catch the performance. They are performing a concert of orchestral operatic favourites which—although not a personal favourite—is sure to be good.
Opera is hard for listeners steeped in Indian classical music, mostly because the singing sounds like the “false voice” that Indian music teachers are always admonishing against. This is why I don’t get opera. To fully appreciate this art form, you have to be German, Italian or at least European. You have to be my college dorm-mate, Ursula, a Bavarian who spoke fluent Italian. She would play opera loudly at dusk, drink schnapps, and weep.
It was Ursula who—along with Charlotte and George Clark, a Boston couple who took me in—introduced me to Western classical music. I’ve had an on-again off-again relationship with it ever since. Today, I am humming Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, which begins with a lovely, pathos-laden solo. Kurt Masur, a maestro who favoured German Romantic composers, conducted it frequently.
The role of an orchestra conductor is at once pivotal and redundant. On the one hand, they seem to do very little; on the other, they hold it all together. There is a wonderful line in a documentary about the Russian music conductor, Valery Gergiev, who heads the fabled Mariinsky Theatre in Russia. In the documentary, Gergiev is coaxing his orchestra to play better. “I am not important,” he tells his orchestra, as he makes them play a section again and again. “Play again,” he says. They do. “I am important,” he says with a smile before softly uttering the words that would become the title of the documentary: “You cannot start without me.”
The maestros of the music world: What do they do, these men? And they are still mostly men, save for Marin Alsop, the only female conductor of any repute in the classical music world. Even for music connoisseurs, the role of the music conductor remains nebulous. The multifaceted Leonard Bernstein tried to change that with Omnibus, the television series—required watching for anyone interested in Western classical music. In it, Bernstein talks about how a maestro can coax, cajole, and often threaten an orchestra into harmony.
Every now and then, news and music outlets conduct a survey of the top 10 music conductors of all time, a controversial if interesting exercise in gauging musical taste. Some names keep coming up. Arturo Toscanini, the fiercely principled, intense Italian conductor with a photographic memory, is one. There are clips on YouTube of Toscanini conducting the famous Beethoven Fifth Symphony at Carnegie Hall—with its famous “Pa Pa Pa Paam” opening. Toscanini stands there with the unrelenting expression of a father demanding his orchestra deliver harmony and beauty, and above all, an understanding of the piece’s beauty. “God tells me how the music should sound, but you stand in the way,” Toscanini is said to have told a trumpet player.
Riccardo Muti, who controlled La Scala with an iron hand, is another charismatic conductor. He once said that the reason he was such a perfectionist, such a taskmaster, was because he felt “responsible” for the music. He felt responsible to Mozart, or Puccini, or Verdi and wanted to do them justice. Muti was a great conductor but not an easy or pleasant one. His musicians wrote a petition and forced him to resign from La Scala, arguably the most beautiful concert space in the world and one that ought to be in the bucket list of any Western classical music lover. Go to Milan, just to sit and listen to a performance at La Scala. Go to Taiwan just to look at the jade cabbage in the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
The BBC lists Carlos Kleiber as the greatest conductor of all time, a surprising honour for a maverick reclusive man who cancelled performances almost as often as he conducted them. A German, he was born in Berlin but raised in Buenos Aires—Karl became Carlos—and this perhaps explains Kleiber’s superb combination of technical rigour and artistic expressiveness. He was a conductor’s conductor, voted by his peers to be the best of them all. The fact that he was handsome didn’t hurt.
To watch him conduct the Vienna Philharmonic is to watch a man both enjoying and encouraging the music. Often Kleiber danced, or lifted his legs, to the music. He swayed and shifted; bent over double. He was a passionate, dramatic conductor—but not as dramatic as our own Zubin Mehta, who continues to hold his Indian passport in spite of his long years with the New York Philharmonic and with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Mehta is a great, dramatic, unconventional conductor. His 7-minute variations of “happy birthday” as played by Bach, Beethoven, Wagner and Chopin, had his audience grinning and clapping. It could only have come from a man who grew up in a land where musically inclined children are trained to identify ragas from hearing a phrase. It is easy to imagine Mehta transposing this concept to Western classical music. “Okay, kids. I am going to have the orchestra play ‘Happy Birthday’. You have to identify the raga—or the style of the composer. There will be Beethovan-style and New Orleans-style.” There was, and his audience was delighted.
My own favourite conductor is Herbert von Karajan. Why? Because he was spiritual; because he conducted with his eyes closed; because he wasn’t controlling.
Shoba Narayan hopes to sit at La Scala some day. She hopes to sit at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) to listen to the Symphony Orchestra of India next season. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns