Classic connection

ONCE UPON a time there were two groups of musicians in Chennai called the Madras Chamber Orchestra and the Madras Guitar and String Ensemble. They used to play the music of great masters such as Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi and Haydn to an appreciative audience, be it live or on radio. What has happened to them today? Well, they are still playing, no doubt, for the sheer pleasure of it, but more often than not within the confines of their homes.

"The city always had a niche audience for Western Classical music," says Haricharan Das, managing director, Musee Musicals Pvt. Ltd, and honorary regional representative of the Trinity College of Music, London, in Chennai. Connoisseurs, performers, teachers and students echo this view but feel that lack of infrastructure, career prospects and organisational support deters many aspirants from pursuing Western Classical music. And this perhaps explains the relatively fewer number of concerts and public performances when compared to other genres of music.

Classic connection

"Yet, the scenario is not too bleak," feels guitarist and teacher par excellence, Thangadorai Samuel. Last year, there were as many as 900 students who appeared for the examinations conducted by the Trinity College. The importance of learning the codified system of notation that is unique to Western Classical music, acquiring technical expertise and an internationally recognised certificate has been realised by teachers and performers-to-be and this is attracting more learners into the fold."

Girija Jayaraman, who has years of experience teaching and playing the violin, feels the future for Western Classical music is good. However, more could be done by the public and the Government to create an environment that would be conducive to the popularisation of this genre. "At present," she says ruefully, "there is a growing trend towards commercialisation, with many musicians practically playing to the gallery just to make a quick buck than for the love of the Classics. With little scope to pursue study at a higher level, and the prohibitive cost of a musical education abroad, most youngsters turn to cinema for a livelihood."

Classic connection

"This explains why many students stop attending classes after they have developed a certain level of proficiency," says Thangadorai Samuel. "For, they feel the little knowledge they have is sufficient for them to get by in tinseldom."

Augustine Paul who teaches at ProMusic, which represents the Royal School of Music, says, "Today, Western Classical music is, by and large, confined to churches."

Classic connection

Talking about the teaching scene, he rues, "Well, there are over 100 teachers in the city and ten times the number of students. Of these, nearly 50 per cent students give up half way through. The other 50 per cent takes up the exams and even passes with flying colours. But after that, there is nowhere to go. Perhaps a place in the world of celluloid."

The winds of change have not left out the world of Western Classical music, says Das. The advent of the electronic keyboard has proved a boon for many youngsters who find it a convenient, easy-to-learn and friendlier option when compared to the conventional pianoforte. The versatile keyboard, which is easy-to-maintain, portable and, above all, affordable, is rapidly becoming popular in the country. And with the Trinity College and the Royal School of Music, introducing keyboard examinations some years ago, there is a dramatic rise in the number of students enrolling for music lessons and appearing for examinations.

Sudhin Prabhakar of ProMusic opines, "Today, the keyboard has replaced many instruments. The need for an orchestra is slowly coming down, unlike abroad where even rock bands use a full-fledged orchestra. Also the cost of the instruments and their maintenance is prohibitive. Finally, for the time, effort and the money spent, there is no reward."

"Though a number of piano teaching classes have mushroomed all over the city, the students prefer to learn the keyboard. As a result, there are fewer takers for piano classes these days. As for other instruments such as the violin and the flute, the numbers are dwindling with the loss of studio jobs," says Augustine.

According to Das, purists frown on the electronic keyboard with its profusion of programmed sounds and seemingly boundless possibilities. To them there is no substitute for the mellow tones of the violin of the sweet sound of the pianoforte. However, even the harshest critics of the electronic keyboard cannot disagree with the fact that it has helped to make Western music more adaptable and accessible to the masses, even in the Western world. The Trinity College syllabus too is revamped from time to time and besides conservative music, there is also place for a ragtime, jazz or blues composition.

Violin virtuoso Narasimhan of the Madras String Quartet presents another point of view. "Those days, the embassies and consulates used to encourage and support us, especially the Max Mueller Bhavan. But, today somehow the enthusiasm has waned. In fact, we do not even have a place where we can practise, let alone perform." A sentiment echoed by `Cello' Sekar, another member of the Quartet, who adds, "I think the present generation does not take Western Classical music seriously. This is a worldwide phenomenon, not just in India. In Europe and America, there seems to be a general apathy towards Western Classical music. In fact, many orchestras have been disbanded." Says Narasimhan, "Even Broadway shows are downsizing their orchestras as their budgets have been cut."

Sophisticated equipment and digital sound have opened up a wonderful world of melody for lovers of Western music. While in the past they had to remain content with records and audio cassettes, today there is ample scope to listen to finely recorded compositions of their favourite composers, though it is only a small percentage.

"The percentage of Western classical music available off the racks is negligible," says Jaishankar Subramanium of Landmark. "That is perhaps because people have stopped treating it seriously and also the supply from music companies is poor." According to him, the perennial sellers are compositions of the Baroque and Romantic composers, and the Hooked On Classics series. What is needed is a niche channel, both on radio and television, as the best way to promote music is through airplay. World Space Radio already is doing it and I think in the years to come, FM too will go that way."

"The efforts of the Max Mueller Bhavan, the German Consulate, the Alliance Francaise and the British Council to promote Western Classical Music by hosting performances by soloists, orchestras, ensembles and even vocalists have helped give the Western Classical Music scenario a fillip," says Anna Abraham, connoisseur and critic.

There is still hope at the end of the tunnel. To be a good musician you have to develop a keen ear. And the best way to do so is by listening to music, aver Girija Jayaraman, Thangadorai Samuel, Narasimhan and Sudhin.

"I think parents play a big role in initiating their children to this style. Another possibility is to address children at the school level, where courses on music can be included in the syllabus. Also radio and television must be explored," say Narasimhan and Sekar.

Augustine says, "On a positive note, more and more musicians want to study theory, especially those arrange music." Sudhin has several ideas up his sleeve, including starting a listener's club. "We hope to organise annual concerts in which school children perform Western classical pieces." What is needed is a common association to promote Western classical music, an idea that everybody agrees with.

As Narasimhan aptly puts it, "Music makes one a better human being. It refines you and helps you think positively." So, isn't it time to tune in to the Classics?