Czech on the harmony
Debashish Chaudhuri, the Indian-born conductor of the Bohuslav Martinů orchestra on their second Indian tour and his own musical journey
The term “Rach 2” never fails to strike fear in the hearts of pianists. It refers to the formidable Piano Concerto No. 2, the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff’s masterpiece. It’s the mountain that every professional pianist aspires to climb. Lasting a little less than 40 minutes, the piece affords the pianist a display of dazzling virtuosity with breathless leaps and runs from top to bottom of the keyboard. Rachmaninoff flamboyantly provides one tear-jerking melody after another. The concerto’s sombre second movement (or part) was memorably used to great melancholic effect in David Lean’s 1945 film Brief Encounter.
Delhiites experienced the magisterial composition live in concert by Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic Orchestra on Friday. The ensemble will continue the four-city India tour, performing next in Mumbai, Goa and Kolkata. It’s their second visit, after the 2016 tour, with the Indian-born conductor Debashish Chaudhuri.
Chaudhuri was born and educated in Kolkata before moving to the noted Prague Conservatory in the Czech Republic. He’s lived there for almost two decades. In an email interview, he speaks of his musical journey, challenges of such a tour and the dynamics of rehearsals when his wife, Jana Chaudhuri, is the piano soloist. Edited excerpts:
How did your musical journey begin?
My parents loved music and I recall watching them sing together in the evening: Indian songs, Rabindrasangeet, Nazrulgeeti, folk songs and even kirtans with my grandparents who also enjoyed music. My parents also played instruments but never professionally, it was just for fun. The love of music was quite strong in our home as a source of joy. As a child my parents noticed how music relaxed me, so they gave me a violin when I was 7. I went through several instruments and phases before finally studying conducting in conservatories in Prague and Italy.
Is the full orchestra visiting India? How was the experience on your last visit?
There are well over 100 musicians in the orchestra who alternate in concerts. We are travelling with 60 members to India. 2016 was a very special occasion—the first Czech orchestra to visit India after 57 years. The moment I remember the most was the second I walked on to the stage, living the dream of bringing the orchestra to India and to see the house full. The next moment came right at the end when the entire audience joined in spontaneously singing with the orchestra, who were so surprised, but it gave them more energy to play and the whole hall was resounding in pure happiness.
What are the challenges of undertaking such a tour?
The challenges and the resources needed are enormous. The logistical coordination took over two years alone of constant work by my manager Lenka (Dobias Cerna) planning with our Indian partners. We also had to buy extra seats in the planes exclusively for the cellos and the tuba, while the largest instruments, such as the timpanis and double basses, had to be locally sourced and transported separately as cargo on road. Also, we have to deal with the humidity, which affects the tuning of the instruments. There are too many fine details.
When you are conducting and your wife is the soloist what’s the dynamic between you two?
When my wife is the soloist, it has a lot of advantages because we can spend a lot of time working on the piece and discussing various aspects technically, musically, historically. It always gives us more insight into our performances. The other side of the coin is that because the relationship is much closer, the tempers can often flare more than usual, but the results are always more rewarding.
Do you also follow Indian classical music? What according to you are the similarities or differences between the Eastern and Western traditions?
Not as much as I would like to. The Indian classical music (ICM) traditions both in north and south India are disciplines that are far older and more developed than European classical music. European classical music right from the very beginning explored and developed polyphonically, this means more than one note sounding at the same time, in some kind of relationship and logic. Indian music is much more rhythmically complicated, whereas Western classical music (WCM) is more complicated harmonically, where different notes sound at the same time in logical relationships which give different colours.
Is improvisation not possible at all in WCM?
It is very hard to explain this, but it is not possible in a way that is allowed in ICM. However, there is a very fine line between improvising and tremendous interpretation. Yes, each note that we have to play and for how long is written. But there is still so much about that single note that is not possible to write. And it is that space which has given birth to the art of interpretation, which, in my opinion, is as infinite as the art of improvisation.
How have the orchestra members responded to India?
Czechs are a very adventurous and humble people who have always had great respect for India. The last tour left a profound impression on them, and changed their lives positively— musically as well as personally. I think that would be only possible through the cultural shock one gets in India. What I am very happy about is that the Czechs are the people who appreciate the shock and I’m sure it will be the same this year.
The orchestra is touring India till 19 January. For venue, timings and ticket details, visit www.filharmonie-zlin.cz/en/