The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra gave school children an extraordinary experience.

It is not often that you get to listen to a western classical composer presenting his best composition live in a symphony orchestra in Chennai. This happened twice over the past weekend: First, when the 15-piece string, wind and brass sections opened with Paul Rissmann's medley from his award-winning composition: The Chimpanzees of HappyTown, for the lucky school students, who attended the music workshop by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (SSO) on Thursday last; second, on Friday, when the full complement of the orchestra regaled children at the packed Lady Andal hall with Stomp by James MacMillan with the composer wielding the baton.

Thanks to classical pianist Anil Srinivasan and the Rhapsody Music Education Pvt Ltd, the SSO presented three hour-long workshops for 450 children in the city from over a dozen schools. It was an extraordinary class on the three sections of SSO by a representative wind quartet, string quintet and brass quintet.

Each of the 14 instrumentalists introduced themselves, their instrument, the role it played in the category, how the sound was created - by playing, bowing or blowing - and the various sounds that can be produced by the viola, oboe, trumpet, French horn, bassoon, trombone, tuba and cello. This was done under a minute flat by each of them and in the most engaging manner with a lot of humour thrown in. Then followed lively snatches played by the quartet/quintet and the selection was brilliant.

Playing their heart out

The string quartet's last piece saw the violin and viola players on their feet as the dance piece needed pizzicato playing (plucking the strings). It was incredible to see the artists playing their heart out for children and the fervour of violinist Greg Lawson, who tossed his lovely, long curls about, as he ‘bowed’ his way into the hearts of his listeners.

Thoughtfully included in the package was a composition by English musician Michael Nyman, and in it you could track the Indian rhythms. The tuba player even let a child hold and carry the very expensive instrument while explaining.

Jim Parker's Animals by the wind quintet, had the youngsters squealing in delight and the last medley of Scottish dance tunes, where all the three sections joined in, was a treat. Preetha George, co-ordinator for music, Arsha Vidya Mandir, who brought along 40 children from the school, said, “It was unbelievable that these world-class artists would be so simple and interact with our children the way they did… Got to learn a lot from them.”

The musicians repeated this workshop back to back three times in the forenoon of Thursday for batches of 150 in each session. It seemed they were determined to inspire the youngsters into becoming musicians, such was their passion, geniality and commitment.

Krishna Iyer, who runs Vocalz, said, “How lucky can you get? I mean the kids were having high calibre performers at such close proximity (the 150 children and the musicians were all on the dais together) and the artists doing an almost one-on-one tutorial for them without condescension. I have been to our lec-dems, Indian musicians will not do the same or have this warmth of heart.”

About 2000-odd children from about 20 city schools had the enviable privilege of being entertained for free by the SSO in two concerts on Friday morning. Enviable because, the tickets for the public concert that was held the following day were hard to come by and you heard of die-hard music fans buying tickets at four times the going rate.

A hush fell as the conductor James MacMillan took position at the same venue and straightaway plunged into Arnold's Scottish Dance No. 4 and the 70-odd musicians played with joyful enthusiasm. The vastly talented music composer-animateur (trainer-educationist) Paul Rissmann, who presented short and apt nuggets of relevant information with images and details on the backdrop before every piece, made a world of difference to the children enjoying the music showcased.

This kind of education could very well have been done for the Saturday night programme too, you felt, on hearing the adult audience applauding invariably in between movements.

The most famous piece of music ever composed, to quote Rissmann, Beethoven's 5th Symphony filled the hall and the children began to respond positively.

In its nascent stage in Europe a few centuries ago, there were only a few musicians in SSO. Rissmann said in its modern avatar, it is a huge contingent of instrumentalists and hence the necessity for a conductor to control the music, shape the sound and ensure that the dynamics are followed.

In the finale of Haydn's trumpet concerto, the affable Mark O'Keeffe took off triumphantly and the children got to learn about concerto in a symphony. The presenter had the entire crowd keeping time with the cymbals by clapping in Bizet's Toreadors. “We not only play concertos, we also play for films, even computer games,” was the introduction given before the ‘Star Wars,’ music swept over the auditorium.

Leela R. of Std VI, B.M. Omega International School, who attended both days was pleasantly surprised to hear it: The BBC SSO playing film music! She also found it amusing that they used spoons to make music, of course she was referring to the castanets in MacMillan's Stomp.

The musicians for their part seemed to be happy to have spent time with the children. Yann Ghiro, the irrepressible French clarinetist, said, “Initially we did not know anything about the kids. But the moment they began responding to our questions and laughing at our jokes, it was fascinating for us too to play for them and make the interaction lively.”

Even a not so-keen-on-music child would have been inspired at the end of the two-day workshop and concert. Having a friendly interaction with world class musicians can be a game-changer. With more conservatories coming up and access to top-notch recordings of the classics on YouTube, western classical music is set to make enormous strides in this part of the globe.


A touch of class in ChennaiApril 3, 2014

Notes on the orchestra March 25, 2014