Greig, Arabian nights and Cultural Hubs

Published : 8:45 am  June 28, 2017 | No comments so far |  |  (133) reads | 

Going to a concert knowing little about a composer is daunting. Somehow, Edward Greig had not been in my sights, though I would have listened on and off to parts of Peer Gynt suite which crops up often in those roving collections of classical music. 

This maybe partly because he was from Norway. Northern Europe has somehow registered in my imagination as a cold, forbidding place (I wonder if some of the bad moments in Ingmar Bergman have anything to do with this). But the concert held at the Lionel Wendt last week featuring pianist Anthony Adkins, backed by Ananda Dabare’s Krasna ensemble, showed me how wrong I’d been. Greig may be Norwegian by birth, but his temperament roves over a larger, warmer and very colourful universe, so romantic in its tender exploration of the exotic. 

Indeed, as the orchestra played Peer Gynt Suites No. 1 and 2 before the pianist arrived on stage, I was in for a surprise. In this case, however, I could truly claim that ignorance was bliss. It was as if I was listening to Peer Gynt for the first time. To see a live orchestra of over 50 members perform these eight pieces was a revelation, no comparison with any CD one might hear at home. Besides, one heard one or at most two of these pieces on a CD, whereas the emotional connections and weight of feeling resulting in all eight coming one after another was stupendous. 

The titles say a lot about the tone colour of these pieces – Morning Mood, Anitra’s Dance, The Abduction of the Bridge and Arabian Dance and so forth. Indeed, there is something very East European about them, my mind recalling Tchaikovsky, Glinka, Borodin and even Kachaturyan as the violins sprinkled their notes and the horns and trumpets blew theirs. After the concert, it hardly surprised me to find the following quotation from Tchaikovsky inside the programme notes: 

“In Greig’s music, there prevails that fascinating melancholy which seems to reflect in itself in the beauty of the Norwegian scenery, now grandiose in its vast expanse, now grey and dull, but always full of charm…” 

He may well have been speaking of Russia. But this music goes beyond evoking European geography. “Fascinating melancholy” it certainly is, but this music has an international temperament, warm enough to override any melancholy. With every note, one senses the excitement of an artiste who was inspired by the rhythms, moods and fantasies of the Middle and Near  East.” 

 

Reality is that all politically-backed entities are fragile. This trust has the PM’s blessings, but it has still a long way to go before we have the sort of state orchestra which Chanmugam envisioned in his speech

 

Anthony Adkins, described by one British reviewer as “a devil of a pianist,” apparently played Greig’s Concerto in A Minor on an empty stomach, which may be why he didn’t seem to be at his best. Due to a crippling stomach problem, he’s only had six glasses of water throughout the day. Prodigious as that feat was, the effort taken to shape conductor Ananda Dabare’s Krasna ensemble at short notice to synch with one of the world’s best pianists cannot be underestimated. 

 

But the reality is that all politically-backed entities are fragile

 

If both the pianist and conductor were nonplussed by the unnecessary applause (at the start of each movement), they did not show it, but the more knowledgeable members in the audience were shaking their heads. 

Mano Chanmugam, in charge of the Colombo Cultural Hub Trust which presented this event, spoke very optimistically about the future, of greater things to come. But the reality is that all politically-backed entities are fragile. This trust has Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s blessings, but it has still a long way to go before we have the sort of state orchestra which Chanmugam envisioned in his speech. 

Credit should go to the PM for the daring idea that Western classical music is worthy of a degree state sponsorship (even though the event would not have been possible without a number of private sponsors). In countries as diverse as Venezuela and the Republic of Congo, people have created Western orchestras against great odds. In Venezuela, this effort had the backing of Hugo Chavez and the result is an international famous youth orchestra and a brilliant young conductor called Gustavo Dudamel. 

In this country, however, no government has made a sustainable effort to give Western classical music a due part in the national culture. During the Mahinda-Gotabaya era, their idea of ‘classical’ was to have military bands play ‘Shantha Me Re Yame’ next to Diyawanna Oya. There was never any sense that culture is eclectic and wider ranging than that, and should artistically challenge existing norms and standards. 

What does that mean? For instance, conductor Dabare worked very hard to form his ensemble. The wind section in particular, as well as the timpani player (these were mostly from the Navy) had to be trained how to play Western classical music. That they did so in such a short time is a tribute to everyone involved, musicians as well as the conductor. That is what’s meant by being challenged artistically. 

 

Efforts taken to shape conductor Dabare’s Krasna ensemble at short notice to synch with one of the world’s best pianists cannot be underestimated

 

Therefore, this is a fine idea but how far will it go and how long will it last? Ananda Dabare reportedly had a time of it putting this orchestra together. His ‘Krasna’ pays homage to his Russian musical upbringing, but it’s not a full-time professional orchestra. It consisted of musicians from the armed forces bands, chiefly of the navy, the police, some symphony orchestra members and Ananda Dabare’s own former students. 

A room at the state-owned Visum Paya was assigned for practices. This may sound better than Premasiri Khemadasa, his singers and musicians rehearsing ‘Agni’ opera in the parking lot of the BMICH. But the key to the rehearsal room disappeared mysteriously. It’s hard to understand why no spare key was available. 

As a result, 50 plus musicians had to practise in a small, cramped room. After two sessions, they gave up and shifted to the St.  Peters’ College auditorium. And it’s hard to understand why the concert was held at the Lionel Wendt, whose stage was barely large enough to accommodate this orchestra, when the Nelum Pokuna auditorium was there. Or did keys disappear there, too, by any chance? 

One would certainly like to see the Colombo Cultural Hub Trust reach greater heights, but much will depend on which way the political winds blow

In all this, one senses that politics are above music. One would certainly like to see the Colombo Cultural Hub Trust reach greater heights, but much will depend on which way the political winds blow.