Yesterday evening, I went to see the London Symphony Orchestra because someone I knew had 2 free tickets. It was pretty darn fantastic, I felt, although it is true that I can’t tell Edward Elgar from Frederic Chopin unless I have a program to make me sound clever and knowledgeable. I might be illiterate when it comes to classical music but I was riveted by everything, from the guy who gets to slouch in the back because he plays the cymbals to the way all the violinists plucked in sync with one another. Meanwhile, one person in front of me spent all of the second half checking his watch; another killed time sending messages on their phone; the stranger on my right kept eating cardamom seeds every 7 minutes; the chap in front yawned incessantly until they realised they could discreetly keep tabs on the IPL match with their phone. I sms-ed a friend saying LSO was giving me goosebumps and she wrote back, “You’re getting turned on by classical music now? WTF?” Two seconds later, she sent me another message, “Are you sure it’s not the aircondtioning? Maybe you have typhoid. Friend in Bandra just got it.”
I don’t understand classical music enough but I can report that the LSO played in tune and in unison. Until I went out at intermission, I gave them full marks for keeping me interested in the way the music was being played. Then my companion looked at me and said, “They should play something a little more basic. Something like Chopin or Haydn, rather than all this obscure stuff.” The intermission came at the end of Elgar’s “Variations on an Original Theme (‘Enigma’)”. It had begun beautifully, I’d thought, but from the seventh part, I found myself drifting and it felt somehow choppy. In the second half, the LSO played a charming waltz (with harps!) that was dreamy. You couldn’t be bored by last part of “Symphonie Fantastique” with all the crescendos and cymbal crashes but it felt a little lifeless in comparison to the more poignantly-performed parts and again my attention started drifting.
As I eavesdropped on the cold-coffee sipping crowd in the foyer, I realised it’s tough to please the classical music crowd. There were those who knew of Edward Elgar was and had chosen to come for the Saturday performance because Friday had been the populist night with LSO performing parts from the soundtrack of “West Side Story“. These were the people who listened for the details, who didn’t get bored when the music slipped into andante sections and didn’t need the cymbals in the latter part of the performance to wake them up.
Then there were those who had come because daahling, it’s at the NCPA and on stage are white people from London no less and everyone who’s anyone (in South Mumbai) was here and so… *insert eyelash flutter and tinkly, socialite laughter here*. Despite not having hard evidence for this, I’d say that this was the group that started hollering “Encore!” at the end of the concert, as though they were watching a bunch of people who jam together rather than a 120-piece orchestra that plays according to sheet music that’s been chosen after months of rehearsal and planning.
Finally, there was the bunch that wants to like classical music but couldn’t recognise a single tune and the unfamiliarity frustrated them. Near the snack bar, someone confidently said that “Symphonie Fantastique” was the basis of the “Fantasia” score (it isn’t) and everyone in that group gave a relieved sigh that the rest of the concert wasn’t going to be “weird”. Another person told his crowd that the LSO was looking to do Bollywood and that made everyone somehow more accepting of the Elgar and Berlioz chosen for the evening. I saw a young girl tell her boyfriend/ husband that she was sure the Elgar piece they’d just listened to was actually Mozart. “Same quickness, you know? Tripping over the notes and octaves, that’s like trademark Mozart,” she said. He shrugged and said, “I guess.”
“You can tell the negativity in the space by the number of coughs you hear,” said a woman who said she felt like she’d found her soul after 10 days of vipassana. “Look, this is Mumbai. You need to give us some jhataak.” By “jhataak”, she meant composers like “Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, that sort of thing.” Meanwhile, I was hearing Elgar and seeing Govinda in my head (very disturbing and untingly). I couldn’t find her at the end to ask what she’d thought of “Symphonie Fantastique” and if the dramatic allegro bits had been sufficiently jhataak.