by Christopher Morley

Founded only as recently as 2006, the Symphony Orchestra of India makes its UK debut with a six-concert tour later this month. And the schedule begins here in Birmingham, at Symphony Hall.

"We know that the Symphony Hall in Birmingham is one of the finest halls in the country," says Khushroo N. Suntook, co-founder of theSOI , and co-founder and chairman of Mumbai's National Centre for Performing Arts.

"In any case, to make a debut in a great hall is always a good way of displaying your strength, rather like batting on a good wicket when it is the first match of the tour." Any interviewee bringing in a cricketing analogy has me purring out of the palm of his hand

SOI's associate music director Zane Dalal is even more enthusiastic about Symphony Hall.

"I am thrilled to be opening our tour in Birmingham. I was cover conductor for Andrew Litton in his Dallas days, and I am a true believer in the fact that Russell Johnson and ARTEC -- who designed the acosutics of the Meyerson Hall in Dallas, and subsequently Symphony Hall in Birmingham -- were hands down the only acousticians who knew that their formulae would give the musicians and the audience the pinnacle of concert experiences.

"I knew the Meyerson in Dallas very well, and if the hall that Birmingham built corrected the very few observations one could make about the Meyerson, then it is absolutely safe to say that the best concert hall in the world now stands in Birmingham.

"Richard Hawley, artistic director at Town Hall and Symphony Hall, instinctively realised, perhaps with the richly diverse population of Birmingham, that the SOI would make a good spot in the calendar, and we are delighted that he thought so.

"I have no doubt that expat Indians and for that matter Pakistanis who share absolutely everything with Indians, - clothing, food, customs, heritage, history, and yes, a misguided, politically stoked, completely unnatural combativeness – will revel in the idea of an orchestra that comes from the subcontinent and brings with it Maestro Zakir Hussain, who needs no recommendation to them, or to anyone else. "

Zakir Hussain is a noted exponent of the tabla, the Indian instrument whose timbres those of us who have grown up with the Beatles will easily remember. His tabla concerto Peshkar was commissioned by the orchestra for their 2016 Swiss tour and offers a powerful fusion of North Indian classical music with elements of the western solo concerto, standing as a tribute to the SOI's commitment to cross-cultural exchange., and it forms the centrepiece of SOI's Birmingham programme.

Peshkar is framed between performances of Berlioz' Roman Carnival Overture (interestingly, the Slipped Disc blogsite) recently lamented the fact this attractive piece seemed to have dropped out of the concert repertoire) and Rimsky-Korsakov's exotic symphonic suite Scheherazade.

" We are a conventional orchestra, and we bring with us on the same program, music to prove it.," declares Zane Dalal.

"I have chosen Berlioz' Roman Carnival Overture, and Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade as bookends to Zakir Hussain's Peshkar. I find the rhythmic qualities of both western pieces to be in keeping with the Tabla Concerto. I also like the idea of beginning the concert with a carnival in Rome and ending it with a carnival in Baghdad.!"

Fans of the CBSO will be interested to learn that it was on the advice of Ed Smith, the CBSO General Manager who brought the young Simon Rattle to Birmingham, that the Symphony Orchestra of India brought to fruition the idea of a UK tour. Other important names in western classical music who have worked with the SOI include Carlo Rizzi, Rafael Payare, Maria João Pires, Simon O'Neill, Cédric Tiberghien, Alina Ibragimova, Stephen Hough and Barry Douglas.

To this illustrious roll-call we can add the name of Martyn Brabbins, music director of English National Opera, former artistic director of the Cheltenham International Music Festival, who ,will be conducting some of SOI's concerts as the orchestra visits London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Guildford during its busily-crammed tour.

Surprisingly, there is still little formal classical training in India at the highest level, and part of SOI's mission is to remedy this by increasing awareness and by calling on western, particularly Russian, teaching methods for young performers.

The lack of provision has been particularly dire in the case of aspiring native conductors. " Apart from Zane who is of course of Indian origin but trained abroad, we still do not have a sufficiently mature infrastructure to nurture future conductors," Khushroo laments

"Zubin Mehta is an exception and I do not think any Indian musician in Western Music has achieved anything near his stature."

Zane Dalal expands thoughtfully. " Zubin left India to study in Vienna – a move that shocked his local friends and a move that propelled him into the soundscape that he would make and master as his own.

"India does not have a single conservatory or professional music academy for Western Music, and the teaching that accompanies casual hobby playing is valiant, but against the odds in a country that for most of its independent governance, has deliberately tried to put away western things.

"The Indian environment, is filled with a soundscape that is distinctly Indian / non Western. If you study violin in Berlin, Los Angeles or even for that matter Beijing, you leave your lesson and the remnants of the same tonality stay with you in your daily life. If you are a student of western music in India, you have your environment for the time of your private practice, or performance. When you resume life outside, your western tonalites are obliterated by a very alive, well regarded and ever-present opposite."

I cannot help thinking of Alpesh Chauhan, born in Birmingham of Indian parentage, trained as a cellist through the Birmingham Schools' Music Service, a player in the CBSO Youth Orchestra, and one of the greatest successes of Michael Seal's conducting classes made available to Academy players from the CBSOYO.

He now has his own orchestra in Italy, the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini based in Parma, and only two years older than the SOI. I just wonder if some link could be established between these two young orchestras on different sides of the globe, effected by this charming and talented young man whose own culture straddles two continents.

*The Symphony Orchestra of India performs at Symphony Hall on February 19 (7.30pm). Details on 0121-780 3333.

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