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

The South Asian Symphony Orchestra silenced the audience with their performance of Peace Notes

The South Asian Symphony Orchestra silenced the audience with their performance of Peace Notes

As the South Asian Symphony Orchestra (SASO) battled the stage with musical prowess, the audience at the Sri Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Hall held peaceful silence in their seats last weekend.

The orchestra is no stranger to the stage, evident by their full stage presence having performed in Mumbai and Bangalore in the past years. It will make its performance in Chennai much awaited by musicians and their fans.

Chennai, Tamil Nadu, 31/07/2022: For Metro Plus: Piece Notes: South Asian Symphony Orchestra concert in Chennai on Sunday.  Photo: Velankanni Raj b/ The Hindu

Chennai, Tamil Nadu, 31/07/2022: For Metro Plus: Peace Notes : South Asian Symphony Orchestra concert in Chennai on Sunday. Photo: Velankanni Raj b/ The Hindu | Photo Credit: VELANKANNI RAJ

Before the orchestra unleashed its bombastic highs and melancholic lows, the SASO began to play the national anthem before everyone in the concert hall took a serious stance. As the last note of the anthem fades away, the audience is left enthralled and grateful to those who made this night possible, The South Asian Symphony Foundation (SASF).

Former Foreign Secretary of India Nirupama Rao, one of the co-founders of SASF, took to the podium to speak about the group’s name and its diversity. She demonstrated these by asking those on stage from India and abroad to take a bow, before addressing the chief guest, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, and inviting her to light the lamp to start the night of music. Sitharaman explained that she was unable to sing along to the national anthem while playing the music on stage, as she believed her voice did not add to the richness of the sound presented by the orchestra. She said the importance of such music is to bring joy to everyone.

South Asian Symphony Orchestra, Chennai

South Asia Symphony Orchestra, Chennai | Photo Credit: VELANKANNI RAJ

As the words ended, the musicians took to the stage in their formal attire and started the night with a message of unity through the song ‘Maithrim Bhajata’, paying tribute to the Indian past.

The song was sung by Bharat Ratna laureate MS Subbulakshmi and Radha Viswanathan at the United Nations on October 23, 1966 on UN Day. As Nandini Chari sang in a crystal clear voice with sitar, bansuri and tabla, the song’s message of friendship between all nations rang true for a moment.

As the invocation ended, the orchestra waited for the conductor’s wand to begin their siren-like sound. Alvin Arumugam, music director of SASO and the Nimrod Orchestra, conducts with poise and sophistication.

‘The Cry of the Rose’ from the Mani Ratnam classic Rose, the real orchestral start of the night. A delicate and elegant piece, it takes us back in time and puts us in Madhu Shah’s role as Roja. Bansuri is also included in the performance.

From the hills of Kashmir, we are immediately transported to Czechoslovakia as the orchestra takes on a folk-inspired piece. Symphony No. 8, by Antonin Dvořák, is an influential piece for many contemporary composers and has a joyful tone compared to many pieces of that age. It was certainly felt as an elation and optimism pervaded those who heard it that night.

After a brief intermission after the piece, the orchestra played the Academic Festival Overture App. 80, by Johannes Brahms, much to the delight of the audience. Given that Brahms played an important role in Dvok’s musical career – by introducing him to his publisher and helping to win him the Austrian State Prize for Composition – the choice of transition is quite fitting. The piece also evokes the mood of German student drinking songs of the time, with excitement, warmth and enthusiasm.

After this tour of Europe, award-winning composer Shirish Korde brings us back to India with a rarely performed piece titled ‘Swara Yantra’ composed before. The performance draws influences from both Indian and Western musical styles, making it consistently perceptive, with Priyanka Venkatesh on violin and Durairaj Chandrajit on tabla, almost seeming to be in an engaging conversation with each other.

After a lull in conversation, the last segment of the night’s program seemed to come to a close with ‘Chinna Chinna Asai’ or ‘Dil Hai Chhota Sa’ in Hindi, a retracement of the first part from the same movie. Roja Evergreen Classic’s all-knowing tune brought out yet another nostalgic ovation from the crowd. The concept was further enhanced by the addition of the Madras Musical Association Choir to the ensemble.

As the last note is played, the audience wants more. But to their delight, Rao took the stage to announce that he was going to play a piece not mentioned in the program that night: a medley of Bollywood music from the 1950s and 1960s. This delightful surprise ensured that SASO’s Chennai performance did not go smoothly into that good night.

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