Edinburgh Welcomes the Symphony Orchestra of India

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Weber, Bruch and Rimsky Korsakov: Marat Bisengaliev (violin), Symphony Orchestra of India / Martyn Brabbins (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 24.2.2019. (GT)

Marat Bisengaliev

Weber – Overture, Oberon J.306

Bruch  – Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor

Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherazade Op.35

The programme of eclectic and interesting Sunday afternoon concerts arranged at Usher Hall often provides unusual orchestras; apart from visitors from the St Petersburg Philharmonic (last month), this season hosts orchestras from Japan (in April) and this month (for the first time) from India. It is for this reason that the Edinburgh concerts programme proves as artistically competitive as the Edinburgh International Festival.

However, there is a history for classical music in one of the Britain’s most populous former colonies. Indian classical music is based on a different system than the western style and based on ragas and talas; this developed from Persia and has little in common with western music, however, it is immensely rich in tradition. The most westernised city, Mumbai, has always been a rich centre for music, however until recently this has never been presented abroad, only for residents of the city. Indian indigenous culture has its own rich heritage and it was in the sixties and seventies that it became known partly though George Harrison inviting collaborations with, initially, Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain which led to a rise in popularity of Indian music among western rock and pop musicians.

In 1969 the National Centre for Performing Arts was established in Mumbai to help generate a school of professional musicians in India. The orchestra was set up with the guidance of its music director Marat Bisengaliev who auditioned musicians from Europe and the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan who also teach at the NCPA bringing up a new wave of professional musicians. The system of music teaching is based on the Russian methodology. Students from the Special Music Training Programme gave two concerts in Abu Dhabi last year, and international touring by the Symphony Orchestra of India started in 2015, and three years ago toured Switzerland, and since then they have successfully toured Russia. The orchestra’s debut tour of six concerts to the United Kingdom was sponsored by the major multinational metals company Tatra. The appearance of an immaculately dressed Indian gentleman with white gloves bringing the conductor’s scores to the podium earned a warm burst of applause from the large audience. Additionally, it seems the bunches of flowers presented to the soloist were from the members of the orchestra! Elsewhere, on this tour the orchestra performed with Zakir Hussain in an Indian piece called Peshkar, a concerto for tabla and orchestra, here however traditional western repertoire was presented.

In the opening Weber Oberon overture, the tone of the horns was awesomely beautiful, and the strings sounded excellent with rich tonal colour. The orchestra set up was traditional with violins on left and low strings on the right. In particular, I thought the first violins were particularly fine in their intonation; this was a very musical performance under the experienced direction of Martyn Brabbins, a regular performer here with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

The Kazakh violinist Marat Bisengaliev has been a top virtuoso for over twenty years, and I remember he made the first recording of Havergal Brian’s Violin Concerto and has continued to explore diverse repertoire. He is the music director of the orchestra and auditioned the musicians and helped guide their development over the last thirteen years. He is an outstanding virtuoso and in Bruch’s romantic piece, exhibited delightful playing albeit with a brisk tempo. The Kazakh violinist boasts great virtuosity and formidable technique, albeit lacking the individuality to be in the top rank of violinists. Once again, I was impressed by the first violins, which can compete with some of the finest international orchestras and there was a fine nuance in the orchestral colours, especially from the violas and cellos. That Bisengaliev has selected this orchestra is another sign of this orchestra’s wonderful cogency in precision and artistry. An Indian flautist together with Bisengaliev encored Karl Jenkins’s The Wooing of Etain (from Adiemus).

The performance of Scheherazade was actually one of the finest that I have heard for many years. Certainly, the choice of this exotically coloured romantic piece is suitably appropriate for this orchestra and showed off all the best qualities of its musicians. The opening brass chorale was magnificent, followed by the delightful virtuoso playing of the orchestra leader, Adelina Hassani, the first in her several contributions which each sounded better than the last. There was not so much depth of colour in the strings, but what beautiful solos from the cello of Sevak Avanesyan, and the flute of Antonio Cabedo. Other highlights in ‘The Story of the Kalendar Prince’, was Hassani’s solo, the clarinet of Arnoldus Van Houtert, and the bassoon of Emily Hultmark. If they lacked nuance in harmonics, the strings had a magnificent discipline, especially the first violins so well directed by Brabbins. In the tale of ‘The Young Prince and Princess’, the violins were simply magnificent, and the woodwind impressed, enhanced with the marvellously effected rising and falling flow from the strings. In the ‘Festival at Baghdad’, there was great cogency in the strings, excellent brass playing, and with ‘The Sea’ and ‘The Shipwreck’, the orchestra vividly related the final moments of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ever popular masterpiece. The encore was Elgar’s Salut d’amore.

This was an immensely powerful performance and revealed of the qualities of this fine orchestra. It was impossible not to notice that the musicians are almost entirely drawn from Western Europe (mostly the woodwind), Russia and Kazakhstan, with only ten Indians appearing on the orchestra list published in the concert programme. Of course, it will take time for the impact of music teaching in Mumbai to ensure future generations of professional Indian musicians are able to take their place in the orchestra. To date, this is the only professional orchestra on the Indian sub-continent, but I am sure their experience will lead to more bold initiatives in the future as prosperity in the country continues to grow. However with the rapid development of the country as an international powerhouse – it has a space programme and nuclear weapons – we may expect top orchestras to emerge from the Middle East and Asia emulating Japan and China in their development of classical music, funding orchestras and building of concert halls. Music is an element in bringing people together and – as ambassadors for their country – the visit by this orchestra will help promote their culture.

Gregor Tassie

Leave a Comment