Conductor Zane Dalal's musical prowess is well known. Apart from conducting at orchestras across the world, he has been instrumental in shaping the course of the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) since its conception. He now serves as its associate music director, but he seems to enjoy speaking about music and teaching it, just as much.
In his voice, there is a reverence for great masters and a sense of hope for the future of western classical music in India, but not without a realistic outlook on where art and humanity stand today. As the concerts for the Autumn season this year draw to a close, Dalal talks about his experiences at SOI, the importance of Mumbai as a centre for art and what place music has in society.
Many of the concerts and recitals picked for this season have a historical significance, as well as a personal one for Dalal. He talks of Symphony No 5 by Prokofiev, which was written in Kazakhstan. This piece of classical music not only has Kazakh impulses, but the last movement is full of Kazakh tunes, he explains.
He himself is set to play The Firebird by Stravinsky. The last time he played it was with the Florida Philharmonic at the Pompano Beach. '"It was a very heady atmosphere. The amphitheatre at this beach had never had a concert before this, I was the first to conduct there. There was one lady sitting in the front who didn't say a word, but went away dropping three gold angels in my hand. After the concert, the mayor gave me the key to the city," he recounts.
He asserts that music to him isn't just about the technical aspects, and this is especially true when he assumes the role of a teacher. "I'd like people to see music as a living, emotional force — to think of it from a different angle," he says. To explain the 'human'-ness of music, he draws from history.
"When we speak about Sergei Rachmaninoff and Igor Stravinsky, two Russian stars in the western classical music world, it's interesting to note that though they were contemporaries whose lives intersected, their work is starkly different. They both escaped the Russian Revolution and they both ended up in Hollywood, but they are not similar," he says, to explain the importance of individual influences and context.
Franz Schubert, another composer, wrote a symphony in 1825, which would not be played until 1875. He was in dire straits at the time when he wrote it; it was almost before he died, Dalal says. "In those 50 years, we went from watching Napoleon and Beethoven in action, to witnessing the invention of the light bulb — thus making it a huge gulf. When the symphony was finally played, it was as advanced as the music in the 70s. Was this a result of his mental state? Was it because the signs of syphilis were already showing in him?"
When we consider the relationship between society and music, there is also the question of great masters who have turned out to be terrible human beings. "How do you go from worshipping someone to realising that they're a pedophile or a Nazi? You can't say all of a sudden that you didn't enjoy their art; you can't deny their achievements. So how do you square that?" he asks.
He says that today, we run the risk of accepting whatever is given to us without questioning it. This impacts not just our personal lives, but also the very fabric of society. "We are shutting off our capability to think for ourselves. This is incredibly dangerous, not only when it comes to choosing what you want in your life, but also politics."
Dalal also has a grim view on the current tendency to take shortcuts and ask for abridged versions of concepts. "We've gone from understanding things in terms of depth and scope to asking for 10-second versions of them.
We kid ourselves into thinking we've actually understood something. That's terrible for the creative process."
Once again, he delves into history to showcase the lacunae that exist in today's intellectual pursuits. Composers from the Stravinsky-Rachmaninoff period were at work between the years 1875 and 1925, which he describes as an extraordinary period because of the leaps humankind took. "We went from candle light to jet airplanes. In 50 years, we built a tunnel through the Alps, we built the Suez and Panama canals, and Einstein wrote several papers, including the one on Relativity. The phonograph was invented, recording was developed."
He adds that alongside this scientific and technological progress, many thinkers and artists had also appeared on the scene, such as Franz Kafka and Charles Dickens. "Where is the parallel in present times? What new have we achieved? Discoveries have, no doubt, been made, but have those moments of ingenuity been replicated?" he asks.
However, Dalal is more optimistic about the future of art. His optimism draws from his experiences at SOI as well as the transformative power of music. He says that collaborations with international artists have enriched the experience of players at SOI. "Our aim was to raise our standards by ensuring that the players here are inspired by international artists. We've had some fine artists join us — violinsts, cellists, soloists. The orchestra playing this season is composed of players from 18 countries; many of the players sit in important positions in their home orchestras. This is what connects us in Mumbai to all those international orchestras."
It is Mumbai's position as a global megacity which intermingles with cultures from across the world that has enabled it to have an orchestra, he says. This is also because the city has a young populace that demands to be connected to the rest of the world. "Everyone wants to ensure that they and the future generations have as fulfilling a life as people in countries across the world — which makes western classical music essential to the city's culture. There's no time to be insular in a globalised world."
He says that he is often asked how he makes classical music appeal to millennials. "The way to do it is to introduce it to people here in the same manner that we'd introduce people overseas to Indian music. We have to think of this music as our art, because it belongs to us, as does the symphony."
Most of all, it is important to find what meaning music has for you and how it enriches your life, says Dalal. "If a child takes up a musical instrument, it will improve their hand-eye co-ordination, their confidence and their ability to play from memory. They may put away that instrument in the future, but they will go on to become Supreme Court Justices and successful professionals."
Updated Date: Sep 19, 2018 15:01 PM