Where worlds come together

Embark on a mesmerising musical journey this weekend with Yale Schola Cantorumand Juilliard415 Orchestra, as they perform a series of concerts with two city-based choirs

By Deepa Alexander

An iconic 16th-Century church, celebrated 17th-Century composers, rare 18th-Century instruments and accomplished 21st-Century musicians. All these will fuse under the mellow arclights of Chennai’s stage this weekend, at a series of concerts brought to India by Classical Movements (CM).

Ushering them into the limelight will be Neeta Helms, president of the premier concert touring company based in the US. Long before Helms co-founded CM that works with the world’s great orchestras and choruses, she spent a childhood in Shillong — in the shadow of the Chinese incursion — and Bombay, learning to sing and play the piano, graduated from XLRI, and worked with Tata Administrative Services. “I had moved to the US on a posting in 1985, and started the Company seven years later. It was a magical time as the Soviet Union was opening its doors to the world.”

It was a door that Helms held open for thousands of Americans who rushed to discover the culture of the lands behind the Iron Curtain. “Classical Movements has its roots in a travel company, and when a Russian cellist who had defected to the West was invited back by Boris Yeltsin to perform, we were involved in the logistics.” That, over time, resulted in nearly 200 concerts a year in countries as far flung as Botswana and Brazil, with highly-skilled musicians and the complexities of arranging concerts in the midst of natural disasters and political upheavals. It meant transporting centuries-old instruments in temperature-controlled holds on chartered aircraft. “We are a team who speaks 18 languages. Some of our early successes were getting the Iraqi National Orchestra to perform in the US in the midst of the War, and the Sydney Opera House concert watched live by 32 million people worldwide.”

A homecoming

This past week, Helms has introduced Delhi and Mumbai to accomplished musicians from Yale Schola Cantorum (YSC) and Juilliard415 Orchestra, and their high-brow music. The YSC, founded in 2003, is a chamber choir comprising students of Yale University, who perform sacred music from 1750 to the present, around the world. Their participation at the Sunday service this weekend at St Mary’s Church, Fort St George, is a homecoming of sorts, as Elihu Yale, the founder of the university, had his wedding solemnised here in 1680, the first at this church.

The Juilliard415 Orchestra, founded in 2009, that often collaborates with YSC, is the renowned music school’s principal period-instrument ensemble, performing little-known works from the Baroque period. “The music sounds as it was envisioned by the composer, as the orchestra performs largely on instruments from the period of composition,” says Helms.

In Chennai, the first concert will open with the city-based Madras Youth Choir, one of India’s oldest choral ensembles. PC Ramakrishna, member of the choir’s executive committee, says, “Classical Movements was interested in our kind of music. Our 30-member choir will perform songs based on Carnatic ragas, freedom, Nature, folk and women’s empowerment in Indian languages. We have been invited to perform at CM’s Serenade music festival in June to mark John F Kennedy’s centenary.” Juilliard415 will follow up with a performance of the works of early composers, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann.

The second concert is presented by The Madras Seva Sadan as a commencement to its 90th-year celebrations. It will feature performances by YSC and Juilliard415, conducted by David Hill. The 1898-established Madras Musical Association choir will also take the stage. The highlight of the evening will be ‘This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity’ , a seven-movement piece showcasing seven world religions, composed by Indian-American Reena Esmail, a graduate of both Yale and Juilliard. It will be performed by Western voices and on Western and Indian instruments.


Originally published at www.thehindu.com on March 16, 2017.

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