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From Roja to Brahms: how the South Asian Symphony Orchestra regaled Chennai

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The South Asian Symphony Orchestra mesmerised the audience into a silence through their Peace Notes performance

The South Asian Symphony Orchestra mesmerised the audience into a silence through their Peace Notes performance

As a war of musical prowess was waged on stage by the South Asian Symphony Orchestra (SASO), the audience was left in peaceful silence in their seats at Sri Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Hall this past weekend. 

That the orchestra is no stranger to the stage was made apparent by their sheer stage presence, having performed in Mumbai and Bengaluru in years past. This makes its performance in Chennai a long-awaited one, for both the musicians and their fans.

CHENNAI, TAMIL NADU, 31/07/2022: For Metro Plus: Peace Notes : A Concert The South Asian Symphony Orchestra in Chennai on Sunday.Photo: Velankanni Raj B/ The Hindu
| Photo Credit: VELANKANNI RAJ

Before the orchestra could let loose itsbombastic highs and melancholic lows, all present in the concert hall had taken a solemn stance as SASO began to play the National Anthem. As the last note of the anthem faded away, the audience was left eager and grateful to those who made this night possible, The South Asian Symphony Foundation (SASF).

Former Foreign Secretary of India Nirupama Rao, took to the podium as one of the co-founders of SASF, to speak of the group’s namesake and its diversity. These, she showcased by asking those on stage from India and abroad to take a bow, before inviting the chief guest, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, to speak and light the lamp to begin the night of music. Sitharaman described herself as having felt unable to sing along the National Anthem as the music played on stage, simply since she believed her voice could not add to the richness of sound that the orchestra had displayed. She further added that the importance of such music is in the enjoyment it brings to everyone.

The South Asian Symphony Orchestra in Chennai

The South Asian Symphony Orchestra in Chennai
| Photo Credit: VELANKANNI RAJ

With time for words having ended, the musicians took to the stage in their formal attire and began the night with an homage to the Indian past and a message of unity, through the song ‘Maithreem Bhajatha’.

The song had been sung by Bharat Ratna recipient MS Subbulakshmi and Radha Viswanathan at the United Nations, on October 23, 1966 on the occasion of UN day. As Nandini Chari sang in a crystal clear tone, accompanied by the sitar, bansuri and tabla, the song’s message of friendship between all nations seemed like a reality for a moment.

With the invocation ending, the orchestra awaited the swish of the conductor’s wand to begin their siren-like sound. Alvin Arumugam, the music director of SASO and the Nimrod Orchestra, began conducting with poise and sophistication. 

‘The Cry of the Rose’, from the Mani Ratnam classic Roja, was the true orchestral beginning of the night. The gentle and elegant piece, sent us back to the past and put us in the shoes of Madhoo Shah in her role as Roja. The performance included a surprise addition of a bansuri as well.

From the peaks of Kashmir, we were transported to Czechoslovakia immediately after, with the orchestra embracing a folk-inspired piece. Symphony No 8, by Antonín Dvořák, is an influential piece to many contemporary composers and is known to have a happier tone compared to many pieces of that age. This could definitely be felt as a feeling of cheer and optimism was spread to those who heard it that night.

Following a short interval after the piece, the orchestra played Academic Festival Overture  Op. 80, by Johannes Brahms, much to the audience’s joy. Brahms had played an important role in Dvořák’s musical career — by introducing him to his publisher and aiding in awarding him the Austrian State Prize for Composition — making this choice of transition very fitting. The piece itself invokes the mood of German students’ drinking songs of the time, with an air of levity, warmth, and excitement.

Following this trip around Europe we were brought back to India with a piece rarely performed before, titled ‘Swara Yantra’, composed by award-winning composer Shirish Korde. The performance itself appeared to take influence from Indian and Western musical styles, making it consistently absorbing, with the violin by Priyanka Venkatesh and tabla by Durairaj Chandrajith almost seeming to be in an engaging conversation with each other.

After the lull in the conversation the night appeared to come to a close with the programme’s final piece ‘Chinna Chinna Asai’, or ‘Dil Hai Chhota Sa’ in Hindi, a callback to the first piece from the same movie Roja. The all-familiar tune of the evergreen classic brought about another wave of nostalgia from the audience. This feeling was amplified even more with the addition of the Madras Musical Association Choir to the ensemble.

As the last note was played, the audience was left wanting more. But much totheir delight, Rao had come up on stage to announce that a piece not mentioned in the programme that night was to be played: a medley of Bollywood music from the 1950s and 1960s. This upbeat surprise ensured that SASO’s Chennai performance did not go gently into that good night.

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