After many early and formative years as a musician in the United Kingdom, this May I finally returned to the country of my birth to conduct an orchestra in concert. Last week we presented the London premier of Zakir Hussain’s Tabla Concerto – Peshkar – in concert with the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall – with the composer as soloist. I recall thinking, on arrival at the hall, that it would be a milestone of sorts, not because of where I found myself, but because of the memories of all the earlier events that I had witnessed at this historic venue.
By the time I was ensconced at Oriel College, Oxford in the early 1980’s, it was sheer attraction to the musical scene in London that spurred the many visits. The Royal Festival Hall, and much later the Barbican, were host to some extraordinary music making, which I remember with fondness. Great performances from that period and later leap to mind, now forgotten in the full machinery of decades of concert events. I remember some extraordinary piano concerti – Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with a newly minted Dmitri Sgouros, and one with Peter Donohoe. A fantastic explosion on to the scene by Andrei Gavrilov and an extraordinary solo recital by his mentor the legendary Sviatoslav Richter. Mehta brought the New York Philharmonic with Mahler 5 on his 1985 international tour – an extraordinary rendition by any standards – and Christoph Eschenbach was creating a first impression as one of the great musicians of our day. Later Carlo Maria Giulini’s great Fauré Requiem and other historic performances are indelibly etched in my psyche…and so you see – there I was last week, conducting an orchestra on that stage at that iconic venue. Yes, it was a milestone of sorts.
But there is much more that springs to mind. It’s all about communication. After listening to great musicians perform, and after conducting orchestras myself, and after educational initiatives, and teaching at university and lecturing and moderated talks and for that matter managing business ventures – it turns out that the greatest role available to all human beings is communication. Our successes, our position, our standing, our joys, our aspirations are completely interlocked in our ability to communicate, or to decipher communications coming the other way. Do we communicate with each other well enough? Do we listen to one another well enough? When we communicate, what do we communicate and is it really what we intended to communicate? Not that I’m in any position to comment on this, but when people pray, are they communicating with a God who answers or are they communicating for a psychological fulfillment and comfort? And if God answers, what has been communicated and have we understood it at all? And if we have understood it as one thing and others across the world in a different environment have understood it as something else – is it not blasphemy to suggest that God was a poor communicator and is it worth fighting to the death for the obvious human misunderstanding? When we send off time capsules into outer space, hoping to communicate with E.T. beings, what inspires us to stand up and say “This is what I think. Listen to me.” We will, I think, easily concede that having our communiqués – whatever they are – listened to and taken seriously is the most important thing in our lives. Observing the Golden Rule – at what point must we also concede that, if that is true, we must seriously listen to all communiqués coming the other way.
There was a moment in last Friday evening’s concert, just at the beginning, where I asked the largely South Asian, Indian audience to open their minds to music that was purely symphonic in the Western traditional sense. I asked them to listen with the same keen ears and reverence that they afforded a monsoon rag, or a structurally complex form, or in the poise and timing of an individual artist. I cajoled them to understand that western orchestral musicians also were grand artists in time, spatial reasoning and sound, who also yearned for a visceral connection to a receptive audience, and demanded and deserved the same credible act of witness. I was genuinely gratified at the attentive and supportive response to our Sibelius’ Karelia Suite which, for many in the audience, might have been a new sonic experience. A harmonic bridge was created – a cultural bridge was created – and everyone present seemed to be – for a short moment – in lockstep with each other. It was marvelous. …and marvelous to create that atmosphere before the London rendition of Peshkar, which for reasons I have explained in previous blogs, dating from the world premier – is a fantastic piece that will surely take its place in the modern concerto repertoire.
Maestro Hussain has been a catalyst for changing mores for the last 30 years. The idea that the world can be one through music is foremost in his work, his styling, his art and his gift. The generosity of spirit that has brought a new generation of Indian stars to the forefront, who without his tutelage might have remained in the shadows, deserves great commendation. In all this, the aspiration of all musicians, forever seeks to forge alliances, and create bridges where none existed, whether for themselves to their audiences, or between peoples and nations. In all this, there is no room for division, bigotry, ideological hatred and the irritating ignorance of shortsightedness.
Are we listening to each other? Not just in the bits and pieces that matter to us personally, but in the myriad events that demand our attention, which are sometimes a step removed from our discourse. People across the globe aspire, just as you and I do, to live their lives in dignity and without oppressive forces fashioning their lives into ‘one size fits all’ boxes, free of self-expression and void of personal identity. During the interview with Zakir Hussain and myself for IN TUNE with Suzy Klein on BBC Radio 3, Wednesday 18th, our segment crossed the five o’clock news, in which it was announced that violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman was cancelling his concert with the North Carolina Symphony in Raleigh, to protest HB2, the controversial law banning the transgender community from using bathrooms suited to their trans identity. It was obvious to anyone who knows the current political climate in the US that this law was a push back to last year’s Supreme Court decision that recognized ‘gay marriage’ as a fundamental right and gave it the force of the law of the land. Whatever you may think of that judgement – one that I happen to support – there is a wider cause to uphold.
We are very sure of separating legal protections for ‘this group of people over here’ – and ‘that minority over there’ just as long as we are not personally affected by it. The caution against this should be a constant mantra. It is too late to protest the loss of legal protections when they have been eroded ten times previously, without outrage and now have come to your doorstep, and there is no one left to protest or stop tyranny from engulfing you. Whether LGBT, African Americans, Latinos, Immigrants, Muslims in Christian countries or for that matter the precarious Christian communities in Muslim countries, the guarantees of the equal protection of the law – if removed for any reason from any group, – leave alone driven by mob mentality or non-secular motives – needs to be reasserted and hard fought.
When Itzhak Perlman gave his reasons for boycotting North Carolina, he used three powerful words. “He had to.” The idea of a principled person not having a choice in the face of inequality or deprivation of dignities is a powerful one. I am moved by this process, because musicians are personally invested in the business of communication, and therefore automatically invested in the business of listening. I applaud the motive and wish more people would do the same! The planet is our shared home, hurtling through space with our ‘johnny-come-lately’ species locked to its surface. It has the same insularity and finite supplies of a space ship. The process on board the international space station carefully adjusts everything to engineer harmony and efficiency in a limited environment. There is no room for human division, insecurity and psychological hatred. We might move to this model on a global level – sooner rather than later.