By Robert Mealy
We come onto the stage of a beautiful 19th-century concert hall with an elegant half-circle of seats facing a proscenium stage. It is packed with people—some even standing in the aisles. Juilliard415 is in Chennai, India, to perform a program of Rameau, Telemann, and Bach. But what does this audience expect? I wonder if they have heard much live Western classical music before. How to explain a concerto, a dance suite—the idea of early music as a whole?
Our ensemble, the Juilliard School’s historical-performance group, quickly found out, and won over the crowd, which responded with booming applause between movements and attentive listening while we played. Some of the younger members of the audience told us afterward that they had never heard Western classical music played live before—what a responsibility and an honor!
And so ended our tenth day on the road, with this concert in Chennai at the Government Museum. Our tour was organized by Classical Movements, a concert-tour company that promotes cultural diplomacy across 145 countries. Neeta Helms, president of Classical Movements, is a native of Mumbai and was delighted to show off her home country to us. Our first concert was in Delhi, in a spectacular hall that was part of the Bahá’í House of Worship, a building from the 1980s set in a gorgeous park. After a side-trip to Agra for a life-changing visit to the Taj Mahal (where we discovered that it is impossibly beautiful, even more so than one imagined), we went on to Mumbai to play at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, where they were just about to produce Gandhi: The Musical!
Juilliard415’s tour to India came out of an ongoing collaboration with Yale’s Schola Cantorum, the chamber choir of the Yale Institute for Sacred Music. Juilliard415 has done several projects with them over the years. It’s a natural fit that allows both groups to explore some of the major choral works of the Baroque, since a choir often needs an orchestra, and vice versa. The director of the Schola Cantorum, British conductor and organist David Hill, is a musician who is equally committed to early music as he is to new music. Thanks to his openness to both worlds, the result was a program unlike anything any of us had ever done before.
Sitar virtuoso Rabindra Goswami was a recent visiting scholar at the institute. Thanks partially to his presence at Yale, the idea took root to tour India with chorus and orchestra. Our concert program also featured Bach’s Magnificat, as well as a Rameau suite. But as the centerpiece of our collaboration was a new piece that Yale commissioned for the occasion from Reena Esmail, an Indian-American composer who is a graduate of both Juilliard and Yale. Reena produced an extraordinary, seven-movement meditation using texts from seven different sacred traditions, each in its own language: This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity.
The result, a 40-minute work for choir, Baroque orchestra, sitar, and tabla, turned out to be especially resonant in light of our recent political upheavals. Being able to perform as Americans and Indians together with a message of breaking down boundaries, reaching across barriers, and connecting through music made each concert a moving occasion for everyone involved—both audience and musicians. The singers had to master the challenges of diction in languages like Malayalam, Ardha Magadhi, and Sanskrit, and had to discover how to make Reena’s written-down vocal improvisations into their own.
The piece was introduced with a raga by Goswami and his amazing tabla partner Ramchandra Pandit to set the stage for the collaboration between all these traditions. Interestingly, the question of playing at A=415 or A=440 didn’t matter for the Indian musicians—they worked from whatever pitch was given as a basis. What turned out to be more complicated was the integration of these two brilliant soloists into the highly ritualized traditions of orchestral playing. In the end, Reena sat next to the tabla and sitar, to give a kind of simultaneous translation of abstract conducting patterns into a pulse that could be felt and sensed.
It’s a challenge for contemporary composers to write music for Baroque instruments that brings out their special characteristics of color and rhythmic vitality. Reena had some great ideas that brought the worlds of Indian instruments and 18th-century strings together. Sometimes she introduced propulsive, polymetric vamps to accompany the tabla and sitar. In other sections, the Baroque strings provided a transparent wash of ethereal sustained chords as a background for the singers, or for solo moments by the winds.
We had the opportunity to sightsee in Mumbai and Chennai, where the choir and orchestra each did a separate performance, and one last joint concert. By the time we got to the deep south of Tamil Nadu and Chennai, temperatures were soaring around 104. And to our surprise, everyone congratulated us on missing the really hot weather.
The experience of India itself was overwhelming, saturating, totally fascinating, always compelling, sometimes exhausting. I think none of us were prepared for quite how intense the whole experience was—there was so much going on all the time, so much life, such endless varieties of existence. The most spectacular buildings, the most moving shrines, would be right in the midst of some of the poorest neighborhoods any of us had ever experienced. We had enough time to see wonders both great and small—temples, palaces, the Taj Mahal—and to witness the endlessly absorbing life of the street. Some of the most life-changing experiences for all of us came on the small guided tours that we received from inhabitants of Dharavi, one of the most extensive (and amazingly self-reliant) slums in Mumbai.
A particularly memorable day on the tour was thanks to an organization called Songbound, an initiative that brings collective music-making to some of India’s poorest and most marginalized children. Working with local partners, Songbound sets up and sustains children’s choirs that rehearse each week. They now have 15 choirs in Mumbai, and many of those children came to join us for a day of music-making together at the National Arts Centre. We sang, played, and danced together, and afterward had a great feast outside, where our students continued to, well, sing, play, and dance with the kids.
Each night in concert, it was overwhelming to encounter a great and venerable classical tradition in full flower that none of us really had known much about. Hearing Goswami and Ram playing ragas showed us a glimpse of a kind of improvisatory mastery that we could only dream of approaching. And the tour of one of Delhi’s great music academies, the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya Music School, where each room had a different kind of musical art being practiced, was spectacular, showing us the interrelationships between vocal artistry, instrumental virtuosity, and the exquisite control and power of dance.
These artists and concerts made me start to think how fragmented our Western tradition is, since fashions in music for us change so quickly and so radically. The idea of reclaiming a musical tradition that is 300 years old—the concept at the heart of historical performance—is a little hard to imagine in India, where it seems the great ancient traditions simply evolve to incorporate new technology as it proves useful. For example, the traditional music we heard was always amplified. And now instead of a tanpura player providing the glistening fabric of a drone for the sitar and tabla, players turn on a “tanpur-app,” via their iPhones to set the mood for their raga.
But there are also some strong Western musical traditions there. One particularly moving part of our tour was that each of our concerts was preceded by a brief recital from a local choir—they all sang from memory with a tremendous commitment to the music. They would join with us in the chorus “And the Glory of the Lord” from Handel’s Messiah, as a kind of grand finale.
Our tour was in connection with a much larger project, the India Choral Fellowship, a longterm vision of nurturing the choral tradition in India. As Helms says, “For those students bereft of basics like food, clothing, and shelter, a musical instrument is impossible to purchase and maintain. But the human voice, however, comes free of charge.” Judging by what we heard from the choirs that joined us in each city, as well as the tremendous energy and enthusiasm of the Songbound children, the choral tradition is thriving in India.
Those ten days in March now seem like a dream. For all of us who were on the tour, I think coming back to America was disconcerting. Yes, everything’s safer, cleaner, more organized, but it’s also all so very plastic, sanitized, bland. I would go back to India in a heartbeat, except it takes about 15 hours to get there.
Violinist, educator, recording artist, and early-music specialist Robert Mealy is the director of Juilliard’s historical-performance program.