The Madras Chamber Orchestra presented its second concert recently.

The second concert of the Madras Chamber Orchestra, revived after a decade-long silence, was held at the Museum Theatre recently under the direction of Bernard Wacheux, the orchestra’s conductor. The programme was a varied one and we had the opportunity to hear a new piece by a local composer. A rare treat indeed!

The programme opened with ‘Summer’, Vivaldi’s concerto from his well-known ‘Four Seasons.’ In their concert in April this year, we heard ‘Spring’ from the same collection. This time, the orchestra took a while to warm into the music, but gained strength and confidence as the piece progressed. Wacheux was the concerto’s soloist. His attention to that role met with difficulties and meant that the orchestra suffered from the lack of his direction. While music of this period was often performed without a conductor, this performance would have benefited from Wacheux’s more direct leadership. Despite these minor problems, their ensemble playing in this piece, and even more in the rest of the programme, proved that this group has the potential to be ensemble worthy of serious attention, both here in Chennai and throughout India.

Mozart’s famous serenade ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ was the next piece. By the time we got to it, the orchestra was in very good form. We heard good ensemble playing, with more confidence from the players which were then under Wacheux’s direct command as conductor. If this had been a jazz ensemble, ‘tight and together’ would be the words that described their playing. There were some balance problems in this piece and throughout the concert, with the lower strings in many places seemingly overpowering the violins and violas. Listening to each other more will certainly help, and their phrasing in the Minuet seemed a bit rushed while attention was lacking at the end of phrases. A sturdier tempo would have helped define the phrasing of this dance more eloquently. But as this ensemble continues to grow in maturity and confidence, such issues will disappear.

Delightful interlude

Fire crackers outside the hall did not assist our concentration in this piece, nor did the man a few seats away who was talking on his cell phone while the music was being played. Despite these unwelcome punctuations, Tchaikovsky’s Waltz from his ‘Serenade for Strings in C’ served as a delightful interlude. Phrasing here too was a bit of a problem, but more annoying was the recurring preponderance of the lower strings. The upper strings were not allowed to display the real delicacy and sensitivity of their playing. Once this balance issue is solved, which it surely will be over time, at some future concert, the whole of this major piece of music for strings would be a gift to us.

The famous ‘Aria’ from Bach’s ‘Overture No. 3 in D Major’ followed. I remembered this piece from their April concert. It is a beautiful and well-known work and it was well-played. Jerry Fernandez’s ‘Raga Mayamalavagowlam’ from his ‘Carnatic Rhapsody’ was the newest and perhaps most exciting piece on the programme. Fernandez is the Madras Chamber Orchestra’s leader and a veteran player in the world of film music. Most of the players in this orchestra are also studio players and can play anything they’re given when it comes to Carnatic-based music. But this piece took them beyond their usual fare. We were given a beautiful piece, beginning with violins playing an intricate duet, interrupted by the lower strings. The raga was clearly audible throughout the whole piece, but did not overwhelm the composer’s ability to weave multi-voiced webs of sound, with some strikingly original and surprising harmonic twists that were wrested from this symmetrical raga. Part of a suite, this movement ended with a phrase that begged to continue into the next movement. I hope we get a chance to hear the whole piece some day.

A rousing end

Benjamin Britten’s ‘Simple Symphony’ was written in 1932 when the composer was 20. It was composed from material Britten had written much earlier, favourite phrases he had written down as a child, two in each movement, which intertwined in ingenious ways that must have made this piece’s first audience recognise that they were witnessing the budding of a truly remarkable musical genius. Light and airy, three of the four movements, with the jovial titles ‘Playful Pizzicato’, ‘Sentimental Sarabande’ and ‘Frolicsome Finale’ brought the concert to a rousing end.

A series of acknowledgements and introductions ensued, and there was a plea as well - musical organisations such as the Madras Chamber Orchestra need sponsorship, and a dedicated audience. We were all grateful that The Gatsby and the Raymond clothiers generously sponsored this event. Even with sponsorship such as this, orchestras cost money, and eventually tickets will have to be purchased. Sponsorship will be in part the job of a dedicated audience. For example, there was no printed programme for the concert, and one was needed. This could be the gift of a willing sponsor at future concerts. This is as it should be in a city where the arts are taken seriously.

It must be said that audiences for Western music of any kind in Chennai have been quite spoiled by the generosity of Max Mueller Bhavan and Alliance Française and, to a lesser the British Council and the American Consulate. Audiences here have grown to expect that the services of professional musicians, actors and other artists are theirs for the asking, without anyone here having to do what it takes to keep an organisation such as the Madras Chamber Orchestra afloat, and ensuring that it becomes the ensemble it now has the potential to be. Let’s hope that both through sponsorship and dedication of an enthusiastic following, this valuable asset is kept alive and thriving.


Handel lives on November 9, 2009