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Symphony Orchestra of India turns 11: A look back at its decade-long journey

In 2006, when Khushroo Suntook and Marat Bisengaliev first conceptualised the Symphony Orchestra of India, people were skeptical about its success. They thought that the duo would have to shut it down six months later, because they would not be able to afford the expenses required to run it. Eleven years and countless concerts later, this symphony orchestra, which is India's first and only of its kind, is stronger and more popular than ever. Fresh off its annual Autumn concert, Suntook and Bisengaliev speak to Firstpost about the journey so far and the legacy that is being built in the process.

The Symphony Orchestra of India after a performance. Image from Facebook/@soimumbai

The Symphony Orchestra of India after a performance. Image from Facebook/@soimumbai

"When we were forming the orchestra and auditioning people, my insistence was that it should have as many Indians as possible, but not at the expense of quality, because quality comes before everything else. Dozens of people were auditioned, and we finally chose four, three of whom are still with us. Much better players have been added over the years," says Suntook. Music director Bisengaliev, who is a reputed violinist. He adds that one of the strengths of SOI is that it has been able to cultivate and retain its own distinct style over the last decade.

"The SOI has improved not just quantitatively but also qualitatively", he says, and this view seems to be corroborated by the musicians they collaborate with. Whether it is Jacek Kaspszyk, the Polish conductor who was part of the latest concert, or Stephen Hough, the celebrated classical pianist, they have all expressed amazement at the quality of the players, who Suntook takes great pride in.

In the past, they have worked with a variety of Indian artists like Zakir Hussain, Shankar Mahadevan and Kailash Kher, and even more international artists, especially conductors. Some of them are established names in the western classical music world, such as Charles Dutoit, while others are artists like American soprano Angel Blue who would later go on to perform at platforms like the Met. Still, Suntook says that the orchestra must work towards improvement, especially when it comes to the wind and brass instruments.

Zakir Hussain performs with the Symphony Orchestra of India. Image from Faceook/soimumbai

Zakir Hussain performs with the Symphony Orchestra of India. Image from Faceook/soimumbai

Over the years, the founders have been able to increase the size of the orchestra, but they say that losing players to other orchestras who are willing to offer more money is a constant challenge. "That's alright — as long as they have a good career, we're happy for them," says Suntook. But what he considers their true strength is that most people come back to play for SOI. "It's a very happy atmosphere created by a collaborative team, and there is no sense of unnecessary competition. They play for the love of music," he says.

Bisengaliev echoes his sentiments. When asked what defines the spirit of this orchestra, he explains that the players are inherently good people. "I am very particular about recruiting people who are not just good artists but also good human beings. They're great musicians and just as good when it comes to teaching, too," he says. Suntook says that another of their assets is associate music director Zane Dalal, who first served as the resident conductor for seven years before taking on this position. What also keeps them going is the support from well-wishers and people who are willing to commit financially to the cause. "We've always believed that when the cause is good, the means will follow," he says enthusiastically. It doesn't come as a surprise then that the latest concert was sold out a month before its scheduled date.

Associate music director Zane Dalal. Image from Facebook/@soimumbai

Associate music director Zane Dalal. Image from Facebook/@soimumbai

They first started exploring operas with Madame Butterfly and later performed the Nutcracker ballet. Suntook says that the five operas they have performed thus far have been their most successful performances. His favourite performances include the ones which featured Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit and Russian conductor Yuri Simonov. Bisengaliev, on the other hand, fondly remembers the concert where Martyn Brabbins was the conductor.

Bisengaliev explains that after they attempted creating a different kind of programme, a lot of younger people, who have never been exposed to western classical music, have become avid audience members. The SOI has also taken up an educational initiative where they professionally train young talent and provide them with an opportunity to join the orchestra.

They have ambitious plans for the future, which include expanding the orchestra's recording and touring capabilities. Bisengaliev says that they are working on building a presence outside Mumbai in the country, and overseas too, by going on more tours. Suntook mentions that in 2019, they will embark on a six-city tour of the UK. Apart from this, they also intend to work on a smaller orchestra of 22 players that currently performs quite often at the NCPA and Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai. "We intend to expand this orchestra into a small symphony orchestra of 35 to 40 people. This will become a regular resident orchestra, which means that we won't have to bring in people for every season," he informs.

Updated Date: Oct 01, 2017 13:12 PM

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