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Updated: August 15, 2013 19:17 IST

Music should contain surprises

MALINI WHITE
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Improvise and emote: Twin challenges for Jonas Olsson.
The Hindu
Improvise and emote: Twin challenges for Jonas Olsson.

Jonas Olsson a professional chorister in Sweden gave a fine recital recently

It would surprise those who attended Jonas Olsson’s baritone recital last week, to learn that he is not a full-time singer, though he was a professional chorister in Sweden, his homeland. Volvo brought him to Bangalore in 2006, and he soon loved living here. Though he was to leave in 2009, he chose to remain in this city, as an Indian employee of Volvo. “India is very different from Sweden, where we are very individualist and there is not much interaction. I think I love the human contact here the most. People not only care about their families, but also their friends, and even acquaintances. If I am absent from work for a couple of days, colleagues will call to find out if I’m alright …”

This charming, open-minded Swede has used his time in India very well, having seen parts of the country from Kashmir to Kerala –more than what most Indians have managed! He has kept in touch with his singing, collaborating often with The Majolly Music Trust, notably in Handel’s Messiah. He has also invited foreign musician friends to perform, taking their concerts around India, to many places unfamiliar with western music. They have met with enthusiastic full houses as well as sparse indifferent ones. “The same programme liked very much in Bangalore, people in Delhi were rather blasé about — probably because there they are used to very good artistes brought in by the various embassies. Conditions, too, can vary so much. In Delhi we used a wonderful organ in a remarkable large church, somewhere near North Block, I forget its name. And in Kolkata one piano was really awful, so out of tunethat even the critic wrote about it. It is difficult to find good instruments in good condition, maybe because there are not many people wanting to learn the organ, which is difficult and complicated. Maintaining them is also a problem.

There was a hilarious moment in a church in Secunderabad. The organist was a Swedish friend, who is a perfectionist and she insisted on practising for hours on that organ, which had been little used. In the middle of the performance, she pulled on one stop and it came flying out, over the choir’s head!

I find churches in India rather narrow compared to the West, in the way that they will not share their space easily. For example, we wanted to do a requiem in a church here and they refused, saying, “But you do not belong to our congregation”. In Sweden we think of churches as belonging to the community, and welcome all people. Most churches have good acoustics and music sounds so appropriate in them. You just hear the voice, you don’t need a mike! I dislike mikes and they are having a very negative effect on younger singers. Projecting the voice is a very integral part of voice training; but now they feel they don’t need that because they have mikes!

In sacred music, Bach is my favourite, his b minor Mass particularly. He manages to evoke emotion while being so structured. He sounds simple so that people don’t realise how difficult he is to sing, the voice has to go from high to low and vary so often. In opera Wagner is my favourite. He is always interesting and weaves feeling and musical expression so well together. Whereas I find Mozart rather predictable; music should contain some surprises.”

He has attended Carnatic and Hindustani classical music concerts and feels that an Indian vocalist might be able to tackle western music, but the reverse would be almost impossible. “True, Indian singers are not grouped by voice range; they tend to be mid-register so a singer might not be able to hit extremely high soprano notes. But we work from a set score; we learn it and perform. Whereas in Indian music it is improvisation within a limited framework, which is rooted in tradition. So that’s twin challenges for the western musician: not only improvising, but also to produce the emotion — and both have to be spontaneous!”

Though Olsson has left India, he vows to return – and we hope it will be a mutually enjoyable exchange again.

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