Albert Schweitzer believed that there were only two means of refuge from the miseries of life- music and cats. What better place to test this claim than the charming Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai, which hosts the Symphony Orchestra of India on the second Monday of every month, and incidentally, abounds with stealthy feline company.
Prithviraj Kapoor founded Prithvi Theatres as a travelling theatre group in 1944, but always envisioned a permanent place for his crew. This vision came true some years after his passing, when with the efforts of Shashi Kapoor and his wife Jennifer Kapoor, the theatre was inaugurated in 1978 in Juhu, in his memory, where it stands to this day. While it was initially a venue for theatre, it gradually opened up to the performing arts and today it hosts over 540 shows a year. The lush, bohemian cafe next door is famous for the eclectic crowd it attracts- academics, filmmakers, musicians, authors and more. In case that company doesn’t suffice, there are always the cats, eager to start a conversation with your spilt morsels.
Western art music in India is rare. Nurturing and sustaining a symphony orchestra is near impossible yet the SOI, India’s first and only professional orchestra consistently performs at a level that would classify as a treat for a classical music buff. This month the SOI impressed again with a diverse and refreshing evening of music in terms of instrumentation, style and vigour. The performers effortlessly carried us across a journey across time-periods, styles, timbres and forms through music from the lesser known composers of the western idiom like Bériot, Kuznetsov and Max von Wienzierl.
The dim lighting of the cosy theatre, the long, cramped bench seats, the hushed chatter in the crowd made this a very rare and intimate setting for classical music – which made it all the more enjoyable. The fact that the performers introduced their pieces themselves, contributed to forging a special connection with the audience. The members of the orchestra were crisp in their interpretations of the numerous pieces, which ranged from a classical piano concerto to more liberating forms like a trumpet piano duo, a snare drum solo, and variations of chamber music such as a viola quartet.
Star pianist Pervez Mody’s customary virtuosic ease seemed to evade him, as he appeared more eager to impress than to express. While he opened with a confident and measured exposition Mozart’s Piano concerto No. 21, the development section included several smudged scale passages that his showmanship could not conceal. The sensitive and lyrically performed second movement soon proved his rare and invigorating musicality and made up for earlier rushed climaxes and exaggerated rubatos, which were uncharacteristic of the classical idiom. His cadenzas were bold and energetic, but betrayed some Un-mozartean elements when he played disjunct improvisations over legato Schubert-esque tenths. Nevertheless, the audience was left awestruck and Mody proved to be a great showman, unperturbed and graceful.
Violinist Prayash Biswakarma, put forth an impressive performance with an earnest and emotive interpretation of Charles Bériot’s Scène de ballet. As solo violinist, he led the orchestra effortlessly with his definite bowing, controlled vibratos and dynamic range. His demeanour and agreeable smile endeared him to the audience and won him a hearty applause, for which he humbly credited his near-perfect orchestral support.
The members of the SOI put together an evening of music that left us amazed and introspective. They had proven, truly, that music was the shorthand of emotion after taking us on a delightful sonic journey. Queuing outside the Prithvi Theatre for a classical music show on a damp August evening might appear a foolish idea to an onlooker, but I’d say it’s a folly worth indulging when what you encounter is as enriching as the classical treat that every show of the Symphony Orchestra of India always is.