INTRO: From the return of India-born Danish conductor Maria Badstue to the India debuts of the Georgian Sinfonietta, Danish Chamber Players and Indian American soprano Indira Mahajan, the NCPA presents many an international collaboration with the Symphony Orchestra of India. Concerts such as these that transcend borders indicate just how important it is to foster the inextricable link between music and culture.

By Beverly Pereira

Last month, the audience at the NCPA witnessed the vibrant music of Georgia at a memorable concert by the Tbilisi State Chamber Orchestra, ‘Georgian Sinfonietta’. Straddling Eastern Europe and West Asia, the transcontinental country has always taken great pride in preserving its rich tradition of folk music, polyphonic sacred music and the high level of the art of opera and classical music from the Western and Russian traditions. At their concerts at the Tata and Prithvi theatres, they presented Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No. 10, and String Quartet No. 14, “Death and the Maiden”, by Schubert (arranged by Mahler), and the very rarely performed Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in A Minor with the talented Georgian pianist Tamara Licheli. Musicians of the Symphony Orchestra of India then took to the stage to perform with the Tbilisi-based orchestra a delightful set of pieces based on Georgian folk songs and dance called ‘Miniatures on Georgian Folk Tunes’ by Sulkhan Tsintsadze.

Founded in 2008, the Georgian Sinfonietta is proficient in an extensive repertoire of music ranging from the Renaissance period to contemporary music performed authentically on historical instruments. In 2012, with the support of the Ministry of Culture of Georgia, the orchestra acquired a French harpsichord by American harpsichord maker William Dowd and other Baroque string instruments, making them quite literally the first Baroque orchestra in the Caucasus. Comprising 15 musicians, the Georgian Sinfonietta has performed across Europe. Last year saw a unique performance of Venetian Baroque composer Benedetto Marcello’s two concertos for bassoon, strings and basso continuo, as well as two remarkable concerts of Baroque music in Finland. Its annual Tbilisi Baroque Festival, now in the 10th year, has become popular in both the country and abroad. The festival hosts specialists of early music, world-renowned ensembles and soloists.

Its artistic director and violinist Giorgi Kerelashvili is no stranger to India, having brought in his unique touch to the SOI over several seasons since 2019 upon invitation by orchestra manager Onay Zhumabayeva. He counts the SOI among the fine orchestras of the world. “I was taken aback at the first rehearsal with the diverse programme and professionalism. Their seasons are always outstanding and interesting,” says Kerelashvili. “The idea of cooperation between our orchestras had existed for a long time, and I am glad that this year it became a reality. It was heartening that we performed four miniatures on Georgian folk tunes and one on an Indian folk motif—because in my opinion this is the idea of cultural exchange.” Come October, musicians of the SOI will perform for the very first time with the Georgian ensemble at the Tbilisi State Conservatoire Grand Hall.

This month, the NCPA will see the arrival of an ensemble of eight high-profile chamber musicians known as Ensemble Storstrøm – Danish Chamber Players. Proficient in French chamber music as well as Danish and Nordic music, the ensemble comes in all the way from KUMUS, a centre for music and art in Fuglsang, Denmark. The ensemble was slated to perform at the NCPA back in 2022, but the concert was held off due to the pandemic. “None of the musicians in our ensemble have ever been to India before. We are very curious and don’t know what to expect. But it is fantastic that we can meet and play together, and that music is such a global intuitive language,” says Maj Kullberg, General Manager, Danish Chamber Players. The concert at the NCPA on 7th April will see all eight musicians of the Danish Chamber Players present a programme comprising Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Fantasy in F minor, D. 940 by Schubert (arranged by Westh), Selections from Lyric Pieces by Grieg (arranged by Westh) among other works.

“We have chosen a programme with some of the most iconic composers in the classical repertoire whom we will present in a slightly different way than they are usually heard. Some of the pieces in the programme are lesser-known works by the composers, while the iconic classical pieces are presented in new, intimate chamber music versions—most of them arranged by the pianist of the Danish Chamber Players, Jakob Westh,” says Kullberg.

The Danish Chamber Players perform around 100 concerts and events each year and host two annual festivals aside from being engaged in recordings and commissioning of works from prominent composers to renew and update the classical repertoire with a focus on Danish music. Founded in 1991, it is interesting to note that its choice of instruments is not commonly seen in ensembles of its kind. “When the ensemble was founded, they wanted to hire the best musicians and didn’t focus on what instruments the applicants played. With the harp and the piano, we always have to look for a special repertoire, or make new arrangements of well-known music. This is a challenge, but it is also what gives the ensemble their special sound and character,” says Kullberg. French music by Ravel, Debussy and Fauré suits the ensemble very well, she explains, because the French Impressionist composers loved to use the harp and flute in a beautiful way.

The cultural collaboration between Denmark and India will be in full force on 12th April when the Danish Chamber Players team up with the SOI Chamber Orchestra to present what promises to be a spectacular evening under the baton of Maria Badstue. The feted Danish conductor will return to the NCPA as part of the exciting INDK Symphonic Collaboration she spearheads. “The Danish Chamber Players have worked with Badstue on many occasions, and she is a fine artiste who we feel really listens well to the musical language that emerges [during such collaborations]. This makes it fun and rewarding to perform with her,” says Kullberg, adding that the ensemble last worked with Badstue on an opera by Peter Maxwell Davies called Seven Years with a Mad King.

At the NCPA, the programme will traverse from Mahler’s Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 to Appalachian Spring by Copland. “The American part of the programme consists of two very powerful works from the 20th century that have become standard repertoire in the States but not so much in Europe yet. For our chamber musicians, it will be a dream to dwell in the big, beautiful sounds of the larger orchestra. That is a luxury for us! And our harpist is looking forward to playing the Mahler Adagietto, which, in my opinion, is one of the most beautiful pieces ever written,” says Kullberg.

Marian Anderson Award-winning soprano Indira Mahajan will bring her richly textured vocals to the stage when she performs Knoxville Summer of 1915 with the Danish Chamber Players and the SOI Chamber Orchestra. “I am really looking forward to the INDK Symphonic Collaboration with the Danish Chamber Players and the SOI. This will be the first time I perform Samuel Barber’s piece. I heard a recording of the great opera singer Leontyne Price sing this piece when I was a student in the conservatory. It’s a beautiful piece that depicts life in the American South, a part of the world I am familiar with as my mother was born in the south. I spent time and still have family there. I believe my experiences can help me to interpret and convey the text and the mood of this wonderful piece,” says Mahajan.

Although Mahajan has worked with Badstue at Portland Opera for the critically acclaimed opera Thumbprint composed by Kamala Sankaram, the soprano is looking forward to this project that comes with a new set of ‘firsts’. Aside from performing Barber’s Knoxville for the first time, it will be her first time working with the Danish Chamber Players. The concert will bring the celebrated soprano to India for the very first time, too. Mahajan was born in New York City to a father who was born in Dalhousie, India. “As an Indian American, this visit is deeply personal and significant for me. It is also very significant because it is an opportunity to represent Indian opera singers outside of the United States and continue to represent our accomplishments outside of ‘traditional’ careers. It demonstrates that we are not a monolith, and we are represented in many spaces within the music industry, including opera. Seeing accomplished women represented in various art forms and careers is very important for younger generations as well. It is also important to remind the world that opera is for all people.”


This article was originally published in the April 2024 issue of the On Stage.