Celebrated Kazakh violinist Marat Bisengaliev reflects on his time as artistic director of the Symphony Orchestra of India in Mumbai, the emergence of the East as a centre for Western classical music and the contrasting approaches in India and China.
The performance, an intense solo of Camille Saint-Saëns' Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, was an apt reflection of Marat Bisengaliev's life and rise – meticulous and perfect, yet breathless and unafraid of the unconventional. Bisengaliev, who was performing for the first time in China near Beijing's historic Forbidden City, concluded his performance with a grand flourish, bringing the Chinese audience who was having its first glimpse of the long-haired Kazakh maestro to its feet. Concert over, Bisengaliev collapsed into a chair in the sparse backstage room, tired but evidently overwhelmed. “This enthusiasm, this sheer hunger,” he said, shaking his head. “It's unbelievable.”
The Kazakhstan-born violinist, who was trained in Moscow and spent much of his life in the West, has increasingly found himself looking eastward. A decade ago, he spent his time performing in the concert halls of London and New York; England, in fact, is still his home. The West, he declares, made him. It was, after all, an award from the prestigious British classical music magazine, Gramophone, that launched his career.
He was presented its Critics' Choice of the year award a decade ago for his recording of the Mendelssohn concertos, which brought him both fame and fortune. But, today, Bisengaliev's gaze is elsewhere.
He is preoccupied with two challenges that have brought him back to the East. Five years ago, he took charge as the artistic director of the newly established Symphony Orchestra of India in Mumbai, India's first fully professional symphony orchestra. He recently founded Kazakhstan's first philharmonic orchestra, an attempt to give back to his homeland. The Kazakh violinist has also increasingly found himself performing in the concert halls of China and India, rather than in Europe or the United States. The financial crisis and austerity measures, he notes, have crippled the classical arts.
“The future of classical music is in the East,” Bisengaliev says. His time in Mumbai these past five years as well as his frequent trips to Asia have given him a unique perspective on this shift. Bisengaliev also has fascinating insights into how Western classical music is being absorbed by different countries in different ways. He contrasts China's impressive government-led investment in the arts with India's bottom-up approach that is producing world-class talents.
In China, Bisengaliev has been left stunned by the amount of money the government has poured into setting up state of the art music schools and orchestras; an increasing rarity in the West. “In China, the facilities are perfect. There is a huge amount of government support and investment, which reflects how the Chinese have become very serious about shaping their cultural image,” he says. “There are more than 200 orchestras here. That is unbelievable.”
In contrast, the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI), which was set up in 2006 at the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai, was India's first fully professional philharmonic orchestra. India is lagging far behind when it comes to government support and student enrolment levels in Western classical music. The Central Conservatory of Music, located in the heart of the Chinese capital, is an example of the Chinese approach. The sprawling campus in downtown Beijing, with towering buildings and ultramodern recording facilities and performing areas, churns out hundreds of Western classical musicians every year. Some students begin training when they are only nine or 10 years old.
Yet, strangely, Bisengaliev is far more optimistic about the future of Western classical music in India, looking at the quality of the musicians India is producing. “In India, the technique is much better, and the demands are higher,” says Bisengaliev, who spends four months every year at the NCPA as the SOI's artistic director. “The approach which the NCPA took is a focus on world-class quality, and they will not accept anything average just for numbers. In my opinion, the Chinese are creating numbers, but not the same level of quality.”
In Beijing, Bisengaliev performed with the Beijing Symphony Orchestra, which was set up in 1977 when China began its “opening up” process. The orchestra is regarded as the country's finest, yet left Bisengaliev underwhelmed. “There was a lot of enthusiasm from the musicians, but the technique was not great,” he observed. He notes proudly that the SOI outshone other Asian orchestras at a recent event in Moscow and was hailed by a surprised Russian press as a world-class orchestra.
But both countries, he says, can learn a lot from each other; India from the Chinese government's focus on setting up the right infrastructure, and China from India's emphasis on technique and quality. He is, however, struck by the near-total absence of musical exchanges between the two countries. “For two neighbours who are facing similar challenges in the arts as developing countries, there is so much they can do together,” he says. “But now, the cooperation when it comes to classical arts is zero.” The SOI and NCPA, he suggests, will look into filling that void by tying up with Chinese orchestras.
“I have no doubt that China, together with India, is the future of classical music,” he says. “I have been overwhelmed by the sheer hunger of people in China and in India. Growing middle classes in both countries are hungry for Western classical music. In India too, I reckon there are little seeds of interest now. The next step I hope is that, like in China, we will see high levels of student enrolment.”
Bisengaliev is confident that the next generation of the world's best Western classical musicians will come from India and China. “What is missing in the West is the hunger that drives the arts and inspires musicians,” he says, reflecting on his own career. More than his concerts at Albert Hall or private performances for British royalty at Buckingham Palace, Bisengaliev says his most proud moment was when he bought his first car; a white Mercedes he purchased in 1990 after signing his first major record deal. “In Kazakhstan, I grew up in a poor family. Music wasn't just a passion for me, it was also my way to a better life,” he says. “This is the hunger that drives an artist, and I see this here in the East.”