Vijay Upadhyaya, 44, wants to build a uniquely Indian performing orchestra. In January, he conducted auditions around the country for his planned India Youth Orchestra, picking 45 performers from 10 states from among over 200 participants. In April, he’ll conduct the first of many all-day workshops in Kolkata (where the selected performers will be hosted for the duration) to train and shape them into a performing unit. The India Youth Orchestra is slated to perform for German chancellor Angela Merkel during her visit to India in May, and Upadhyaya hopes that it will soon begin creating original compositions.
Lucknow-born Upadhyaya is the conductor at the Vienna University Choir and Orchestra in Austria. He’s also worked with the China National Symphony Orchestra and the Providencia Philharmonic Orchestra in Chile. In an interview, he spoke about creating original compositions, the state of Western music education and teaching actor Katrina Kaif how to hold a cello. Edited excerpts:
When did the idea for the India Youth Orchestra start? Why did you feel that now was the right time?
I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. Middle-class families in India seem to be attuned to Western music. I would personally prefer Indians to lean towards Indian music, but anyway, this trend exists. But there’s no quality control. The difference between Bach and Madonna is tenuous at best. Music is more a hobby than a profession. The idea came out of the belief that music needs an institutionalized framework to become respectable, and to represent a generation of Indians.
Composed: Upadhyaya has a long-term plan to improve music education in India. Priyanka Parashar/Mint
What’s your goal?
Ideally, we want to go against the all-too-common Indian refrain of “Jaldi se show kar do” (put up something quick). You can’t learn a language overnight. This is a long-term endeavour. The goal is to commission new music out of India with an Indian theme and context. We can’t keep reproducing Beethoven forever. We also want to reach a stage where someone can live just playing a violin, and make it a respectable profession.
What were you looking for in the auditions?
Frankly, we didn’t know what the standard would be like. No one has done a professional evaluation of music education in India. On the whole, I think the standard was higher than we expected. Interestingly, the younger the people, the higher the standards were. It was highest, for instance, among people who were 12-14 years old. The problem, of course, is that these are people who have played alone for hundreds of hours. We need to develop communication skills and train them to play together.
What’s the composition of the orchestra?
It’s exciting. We have 45 people, in roughly three groups—the 12- to 15-year-olds, the 17- to 22-year-olds, and a group between 30-40 years who we’re training as teachers. I think this is the first attempt to put together people from across India for a performing orchestra. We have people from 10 states—people from Sivakasi, from Kohima, who’ve taught themselves and survived on a musical island of sorts. We had a parent from Goa whose daughter passed the auditions. She has an MCom semester examination on the same day as the planned workshops in April, but the father said: “Forget the exam. Go for this.”
What is the gender balance?
There are too many men. Much more men than women, which surprised me. We hope to get more women on board. I think it will be good to train women conductors.
What kind of classical repertoire will the orchestra begin with?
This is a string orchestra—violins, violas, cellos and double bass. We’ll be playing quite a variety, from Baroque-era Vivaldi to Romantic-era Tchaikovsky. India has many good violin teachers, but hardly any cello or double bass teachers. So over the next few years, we’ll be building up the string section, getting teachers in. Eventually, we’d like to see smaller string groups, or local chamber groups in cities like Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, and in places like Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram), Goa and Kohima, if possible.
Have you thought about the potential audience for a performing string orchestra?
I think the audience exists in west and south India. Not so much in north India. It’ll begin, I suspect, with an insider crowd familiar with this tradition, but as the music becomes more relevant and we have original compositions, it will grow significantly. There’s also the presence of this tradition in dominant mainstream mediums like Bollywood. I, along with the Vienna University Orchestra, had to do some shooting for the film Yuvvraaj—you know, teaching Katrina Kaif to hold a cello. That kind of stuff is useful.
The orchestra will perform for the German chancellor in May...
I’m really surprised by how fast all of this is going. I’m the kind of guy who makes three- and five-year plans, and we already have the possibility of a performance in May! I think Indians are like Italians—their sense of time management is less organized. The Chinese are like Germans—willing to commit to a focused long-term goal.