Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Intimacy equation: Chamber concerts and the sound of music

The ‘Flute Concert with Frederick the Great in Sanssouci’, an oil on canvas, hanging in the halls of the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin is one the more famous works of the German master Adolph von Menzel. The work depicts the intimate circle of Frederick the Great of Prussia, gathered in one of the halls of the palace Sanssouci, listening to a flute concert performed by the Prussian King. Sanssouci was built by Frederick as a getaway from the pressures and crowds at court, and this work captures that spirit of Sanssouci perfectly,embracing the small audience (of ten persons) and its  six performers tightly within the aura of light generated by a couple of candles and a single chandelier above.

Though the audience was somewhat larger than that the audience depicted in Flute Concert, there was something of this sense of intimacy at a concert of three young sopranos trained by Dona Juliana De Sa. Perhaps numbering not more than a hundred odd, the audience was gathered in the handsomely proportioned hall, which operates sometimes as music room, sometimes as art gallery, in CasteloVermelho, the home of the artiste couple Rudolf Kammermeier and Yolanda De Souza.

As with the Flute Concert what marked this special concert was the intimacy of the gathering, of artistes within breathing distance of their audience, reaching out to each other in the course of performance, and the blessed absence of amplified sound. What this concert, and other concerts that have been held at Castelo Vermelho, do, is to draw our attention to the possibilities of chamber music. A fledgling group of Carnatic musicians in Madras, the ‘Oli Chamber Concerts’ team, has recently taken up the cause of chamber concerts for Carnatic music in that city, arguing that “We do not use any kind of amplification…. A mike is used only to record the concerts. With a smaller and serious audience we hope to explore themes that cannot be explored in a sabha concert”.

There is unfortunately a whiff of elitism in the reported statement from the Oli team. While the Oli team may be right about the possibility of exploring themes in the presence of a ‘smaller and serious’ audience, we should also recognize that chamber concerts for reason of their size can also be the perfect locations to nurture a taste for classical music, and be a space for education. Indeed, one of the exciting features of the concerts at Castelo Vermelho is the fact that it takes place in Calangute, opening an opportunity for those who may not be able to travel with ease to Panjim, where so much cultural activity is often trapped. There was something of an attempt toward this spreading of seed away from Panjim, in the concerts that featured the soprano Joanne D’Mello in various village locations, one of them being the Mae de Deus Church in Saligao. Also, the concerts held as part of the Casa da Moeda Festival in Panjim. What separates these efforts however, from a chamber concert, is the attempt to fit every person who lands up within the chamber, a sentiment that while eminently hospitable, may somewhat draw from the comfort necessary to create that aura of intimacy in a chamber concert. To be sure the concerts at the village churches and the Casa da Moeda festival do not intend to be chamber concerts, and neither should they feel obliged to. These efforts however, in moving away from large halls, underline the possibility, of hosting small music concerts, bereft of amplified sound in the halls of so many homes across Goa. Indeed, some of my own more memorable musical memories come from my experiences at the Guruvar Mandal in Hyderabad. Hosted in a modest-sized home in Hyderabad’s Chikkadpally neighbourhood, the Mandal meets every Thursday, and offers the music of the session to the deity Dattatreya, as also a homage to the teachers of the musicians who perform at these intimate sessions.

If the flow of emotion between performer and audience is one of the benefits of the chamber concert then there was one event, held in the Dinanath Mangueshkar Auditorium in the Kala Academy, that may have benefited tremendously from the ambience of a chamber concert. The memorial concert to Lea Rangel-Ribeiro held on the 22 of February 2012 seemed to have been done a great disservice by the choice of its location. The concert featured works that were especially dear to the departed Lea Rangel-Ribeiro, and were played (and conducted) with great emotion by her husband and daughter. However a good amount of this feeling was lost thanks to the distance between performers and audience, a loss amplified by the unfortunately small turnout at the concert. Perhaps a smaller location, not necessarily more exclusive, as the Oli team suggests, but more intimate may have been a better location for this event?

There are two schools of thought when it comes to that touchy question of size. Less is more, and, More is More. The chamber concert, it would appear, would definitely tilt on the side of less is more. Without resolving that grand debate therefore, let us cross our fingers, and request, more, chamber concerts, in our blessed land!

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 21 March 2012)

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