Tag Archives: Western classical music

Article: Grigoryan Brothers interview and concert review (uncut version)

Photo: R. Ravindran

Brothers Slava and Leonard Grigoryan hardly spent time together growing up. Slava, older by nine years, left for London when he was just 18 to make his mark as a solo guitarist, and Leonard stayed behind in Australia, practicing hard so he could one day play with his big brother.

That day came a few years later when Slava returned home and found that his brother, then 14, had turned into a ‘fantastic musician’. “At the same time, I’d gotten quite tired of always being on the road by myself – being a solo guitarist is a very lonely existence,” says Slava. “We started developing a repertoire for both of us, and we’ve never really looked back.”

In the eight years since, the Grigoryan Brothers, as they’re known, have made a name for themselves as the finest guitar duo in Australia, and have toured across the world, from Russia to Japan, Austria to South Africa, to universal acclaim.

And along the way, they’ve more than made up for all those years spent apart. “We’re kind of discovering each other now, later in life, without all the baggage other siblings carry with them,” says Slava. “We’re brothers, of course, but we feel more like friends,” says Leonard.

Playing together has also opened up a whole new world to them musically. “We arrange a lot of music, we commission a lot of composers to write for us – the solo guitar repertoire, in comparison, is much more traditional,” says Slava.  “What you can do as a soloist is more limited as well – when you add a guitar, the range and the possibilities are endless,” says Leonard.

That range, with these two immensely talented guitarists, is quite mind-boggling. Trained in the Western classical style by their father (both their parents are violinists), the brothers were encouraged to explore a variety of influences from early on, whether it was contemporary jazz, flamenco, rock or even Indian fusion. “One of the very first concerts we were ever taken to – I was 12 and Len must have been three! – featured John Mclaughlin, Kai Eckhardt and Trilok Gurtu,” recalls Slava. “And my first band in school played Jimi Hendrix.”

Today, their music is such an eclectic mix of styles – classical, jazz, Latin guitars and more – that the brothers don’t even try to categorise it. “For us, there has to be a showcase of all the different possibilities on the guitar,” says Slava. “Playing beautiful, lyrical ballads is just as meaningful as playing technically demanding classical pieces.”

And they revel in its international flavour. “As a guitarist, you feel like you have a very international ownership – we’re from a Russian background [their parents emigrated from Kazakhstan], we grew up in Australia learning classical guitar, and yet we feel very close to Spanish and Brazilian music!” says Slava.

Plus, they’ve done an album on French Impressionistic music, are planning one on Russian piano music, and every now and again, they take a break from being the ‘Grigoryan Brothers ‘ to team up with another pair of musical siblings from Egypt (who play the Oud and the Req) and perform as the ‘Band of Brothers.’

“We bring contemporary guitar influences into their world, and see what happens,” he says with a smile. “It’s a lot of fun – we were recently in China with them for the World Expo, and our album will be out next year.”

When they’re not travelling around the world or extensively touring across Australia (their last tour had 45 concerts), Slava and Leonard are… well, they’re hanging out with each other. “We have the same non-musical interests – we play golf together, we love food and wine and cooking…” says Slava. “So even when we’re not playing, we end up seeing each several times a week,” says Leonard.

“And after all these years, we’re not sick of each other at all!” says Slava, laughing.

Concert:

A standing ovation and two encores later, the packed audience at the Taj Coromandel Ballroom were still loath to let the Grigoryan Brothers leave the stage. That’s the sort of impact the guitar duo had in their first-ever performance in the city.

The music was gorgeous right from the get-go. They opened the concert (presented by the Australian high Commission, Delhi) with the incredibly soulful ‘Distance’ from their 2009 album of the same name, a melodic piece (full of delicate strumming and harmonies) that defied categorisation. This was followed by two movements from the more traditionally classical ‘Suite Bergmasque’ by the French composer Debussy (adapted for guitar by their father) – first the lively, playful “Minuet”, and then the sweetly evocative “Clair de lune”.

The variety in their repertoire was on ample display as they performed two whimsical and quirky contemporary compositions by Ralph Towner, and then the infectiously high-energy ‘Jongo’ by Brazilian composer Paolo Bellinati. Every note was perfect, their synchronisation impeccable even in the most frenetic interludes, and when they stopped to beat out a complex rhythm on their guitars during ‘Jongo’, it was, of course, to perfect time.

By the time they played their own version of the Beatles classic ‘Blackbird’, it was no longer a surprise that they’d added so many unique flourishes and variations that the original seemed almost staid by comparison. Really, can you blame the crowd for bringing them back not once, but twice?

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Article: Voices for all Seasons (profile of the Madras Musical Association choir)

They’ve sung before the Pope and at the Pantheon in Rome; they’ve sung at the Coventry Cathedral in England and on the BBC Radio; they sang at the Sydney Opera House ahead of the 2000 Olympics, and come 2012, they’ll be part of the pre-Olympics cultural celebrations once again, this time at the Alexandra Palace on the outskirts of London, on the banks of the Thames.

We’re talking, of course, about Chennai’s own choir-that-could, the 117-year-old, 80-voice Madras Musical Association choir. Formed in 1893 by a group of Europeans who came together often to sing, the choir has never been disbanded or defunct during the entire period of its existence, though there was a brief lull in the late 80s, says Dr. Ravi Santosham, president of MMA for the last 20 years.

“From about 1985 to 1990, the support we had from the consulates fell away, there was hardly any activity, and we lost a lot of voices – we thought there wouldn’t be an MMA choir anymore,” he says. “But a handful of us continued to meet once a week, we started having membership drives, and we’ve just gone from strength to strength since then.”

That would be an understatement. Composed of 80 Chennai-ites from various walks of life (high school and college students, IT professionals and engineers, doctors and nurses, playback singers and homemakers… the list is endless), the choir today is the largest it has ever been, in terms of size, and perhaps the most accomplished, holding its own with choirs across the world.

“At least 75 per cent of our repertoire today is international standard – these are not simple compositions,” says MMA’s current conductor, Augustine Paul. “We are an amateur choir, yet we do pieces performed by paid, professional choirs at the Albert Hall or Carnegie Hall.”

No wonder then that the choir received an invitation from the International Church Music Festival to perform in England in 1998 – its first such international invitation. “I got an email asking if the MMA would be interested in performing at the Coventry Cathedral for a massed music concert,” recalls Santosham. “I couldn’t believe it and neither could the choir!”

But perform they did – the only choir from Asia to do so – and they impressed acclaimed conductor Sir David Wilcox so much that they were invited back in 2000, and again for the 25th anniversary celebrations of the festival in Rome in 2009 (where they did a one-minute performance before the Pope).

Along the way, they were invited by World Voices Australia (“maybe they heard us performing on BBC Radio,” says Santosham) to be part of the cultural activities ahead of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. And now, the men of MMA are gearing up to be part of a 1000-voice all-male choir that will perform at the Alexandra Palace six days before the 2012 Olympics open in London.

“We’ll be taking the ladies along too, because there will be a concert tour all over England for the participating choirs after the event,” says the president.

The choir, of course, also does two or three full concerts in Chennai every year, in addition to its well-known annual Christmas show, ‘Carols by Candlelight.’ The remarkable thing is that all of this is accomplished with the choir meeting just once a week (on Monday evenings), for a two-hour rehearsal.

“We’re now geared to do a concert with just three months preparation, with up to 80 per cent new music, which is very good by Indian standards,” comments Paul. “We have a blend of youngsters who bring tremendous energy, and seniors who have a thorough knowledge of the music.”

The practices are intense – each constitutes one-twelfth the preparation for a concert, after all – but they’re also a space for fun and friendship.

Husband and wife pair Revi and Lalitha Thomas, for instance, never miss a practice session and have missed just one concert in the two decades they’ve been part of MMA. “We love the music, of course, but also our fellowship with the other members – some of our closest friends are from the choir,” says Lalitha.

And Roshin Abraham, a 27-year-old psychologist, loves the fact that rehearsals are on a Monday: “It’s the perfect way to beat the Monday Blues,” she laughs. “There’s a lot of energy and a lot of variety in the music we sing.”

Today, the choir’s repertoire includes everything from Broadway musical numbers and jazz to ABBA and Michael Jackson, enabling the MMA to reach out to a wider audience. But the oratorios that were a staple of the past remain – both in its music library (“The MMA has one of the best Western classical music libraries in India, left behind by the British,” says Paul), and in its repertoire (the choir recently performed the immensely challenging ‘Israel in Egypt’ for the first time in nearly a century).

An amalgam of the past and the present, the young and the old, the classical and the modern – that’s MMA for you, a unique and integral part of Chennai’s rich cultural tapestry.

BOX:

You can catch the Madras Musical Association choir’s next performance in Chennai on August 27 and 28, 2010. The classical music concert will be held at the Museum Theatre, in aid of the Hindustan Bible Institute’s social service activities. For details on passes call 98400-85531 / 98844-99456.


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