Sebanti Chatterjee: Hello! Please tell us a little bit about your journey to the world of Western classical music?
Sunit Tandon: I came here in the mid 70’s. I learnt piano at Lucknow. My Piano teacher introduced me to the then director, Mr. Palamkote. Thereafter, I was introduced to Delhi Music Society and became a student member. The first concert that I attended in Delhi was sometime during late 60’s and early 70’s- that too during my holidays! In those days, I was still living in Lucknow. It was a concert by a violinist from Russia, David Oistrakh, Igor Oistrakh’s son, at Vigyan Bhavan. He performed the Devil’s trill Sonata by Giuseppe Tartini. There were so many great concerts! On another occasion, there was a performance by Paul Badoura-Skoda (an Austrian pianist), a forerunner of forte piano and a Mozart specialist. The good part was that every concert was free. However, it was when I happened to be the second strings of the then music critic of Statesman, Margaret Chatterjee (also a professor at DU), that I embarked on reviewing concerts seriously. It really meant sharpening the ear. I used to take the bus or auto from DU to IIC and back to the hostel. In those days, reviews had to be out the next morning. So I had to go to the Statesman House and type it all out within 700 words, and only then was my job done.
SC: How about initiatives to promote western classical music in Delhi in those days?
ST: There was the Delhi Symphony Society. Violinist Ezra Kolet was the secretary of the Delhi Symphony Society – this will be mid 70’s. Harold Joseph was the conductor of the Delhi Symphony Orchestra then. There was the Brass section that was mainly represented by the Army/Navy. Then, Timpani used to be played by the Army people. The Woodwinds supply, especially the flutes came from Woodstock School in Mussoorie. It was a regular school with a very good music department. Other Woodwind players came from the Armed Forces Band. Some of the members were homegrown. Guest conductors used to come for certain shows. I think it went on till about the 80’s. It gradually faded out.
SC: Tell us a little more about the Delhi Music Society.
ST: Delhi Music Society used to be very active. Embassies used to send musicians. Those were the pre-security and pre-assassination days that I am referring to. The founding president was Rajkumar Amrit Kaur and Indira Gandhi was the founding Vice president in 1953. Some of the famous music personalities who performed during this time were Rostropovich, Yehudi Menuhin, Herbert Von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic and Janos Starker, Marian Anderson, Sir Malcolm Sergeant, Istvan Kertesz, Zubin Mehta, Wilhelm Kemff, Rudolf Serkin, Claudia Arran, Issac Stern, Janos starker, Mahalia Jackson, Elly Ameling to name a few. The school began in 1966. Dr. JH Koelreutter was the director for four years. 70’s onwards, there were many musicians who took on the mantle. Our last director was Surojeet Chatterji.
SC: How would you describe the way it functions today?
ST: If I am to talk about the situation now, I have to say that the school has about 1300-1400 students. The frequency of the concerts is lesser. This is owing to travel grants which is a little difficult to arrange at times. We are after all a not for profit Society. All our educational activities are self financed. Earlier, for instance, we had 10 concerts, now we have around 5-6. When it comes to music education, we have classes for piano, violin, voice, guitar, saxophone, drums, keyboard and Ballet, which has recently been incorporated in our programme again. Jazz is another interest zone for the students. We have our very own Arjun Singh, student of John Rafael, who is now the owner of the popular, Piano Man Jazz Café. I feel that, it is also the school’s responsibility to work on the improvement of the standards of the students. Talented ones especially, need to be fine tuned. A lot of young people have taken to music but many are not interested to pursue music at a university level. Moreover, classical music has many components – the style, theory, aural training, and sight reading and so on. When it comes to the administration side, the board members actually work voluntarily. We plan concerts at least two months in advance. The best venues are the IIC, Nehru Memorial (Teen Murti), IHC, and of course the lounge of the school.
SC: Yes, that’s true. Interests pan out in so many ways. Revisiting your musical connect in the earlier days, How about the All India Radio days?
ST: Ah! The first thing that comes to my mind is the access to the wonderful libraries. Radio used to be quite popular in those days. There was a channel in Delhi which even the people from Lucknow could tune in to, at night. This was the 70’s and 80’s. When FM started, there were two one hour programmes each. Classical Music used to be aired on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from about 9.30-11 pm. Then there was the Sunday afternoon and another afternoon, when classical music used to be played. We had to audition for hosting shows. The criteria was that one had to be 15 and above. I wanted to do a classical music programme. I clearly remember the time I decided to play Berlioz’s Waltz for Symphonie Fantastique and Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony. The trick was to play small movements which were popular. The idea eventually was to string them together into a narrative. Mrs. Hope Gaur was quite happy with me as she looked for announcers who would of course know about classical music and at the same time, be clear with pronunciations, when it came to spelling out the names and the movements. There was a listeners’ choice programme on Wednesdays. There, I had to cater to the requests as and when it came. On Fridays, I did a popular music show, called ‘A Date with you’. On Sundays at Yuvavani, there used to be lots of pop songs requests. There used to be huge stacks of letters and postcards.
SC: That sounds like a lot of fun! What about the Opera Series that you are doing at the IHC currently?
ST: I had earlier done summer workshops on the History of Classical Music. There I talked about the romantics, the classicists and the 20th c. composers. Now, this Opera series has been going on since the last two and a half years. I am trying to keep up to the discipline of doing it every month. I focus on the humour and the classical music. I must tell you that while I was in college, I used to do some music appreciation lectures themed around the early development of the Symphony. For example, in the 1750’s, when it was the era of Haydn and Mozart, how it developed from the Italian Overture? Then….how the Germans and the Czechs took it over and so on.
When it comes to choosing an opera for the series, I look at a reasonably good story and attractive music. I have to also look at shorter works. Verdi was eliminated as it was lengthy. Donizetti was concise. I did Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, one Wagner- the Flying Dutchman and Mozart’s Magic Flute, Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, Strauss’s Salome. If the Opera is over two hours, then we have to do it over two days. That becomes a little difficult to execute which is why shorter pieces work well. In terms of new work, we have done works by Kaija Saariaho.
SC: Finally, tell us about the future of classical music as you see it.
ST: There is no exponential really. It carries on steadily and slowly. Gradually, there is an increase in the audience. Unlike the neighbours in our far- east, we have a deep rooted indigenous classical music. Maybe, they do not have such a living classical music. However, the audience is still largely unfamiliar with very big ticketed events like Zubin Mehta in concert and the like.