January 5, 2010

In The Mood For Carols

For a country traditionally known for its brain power and whiz kids, and where almost all talk of appreciation of cultural heritage remains nostalgic rhetoric, it is perhaps natural that we Indians are satisfied with, why even applaud, a work of mediocrity branded as art! And so it comes as a pleasant surprise when someone comes along and shows themselves to be capable of matching the best in the world, and that at a form of art that evolved in and was mastered by the west.

To count the Paranjoti Academy Chorus as among the best in the country would not be an exaggeration. The choir has thrilled audiences with a repertoire that cuts across genres for over fifty years. The choir boasts ten international tours and several competitive prizes.

In a Christmas season that even took them to the Rashtrapati Bhavan to herald yuletide for the President of India, they also performed a series of four concerts in the churches of Mumbai. I attended three, and would gladly have gone for more had they obliged.

The concerts were by themselves an assortion of musical genres, a mixture of the some of the best pieces from Medieval Western classical to Indian melodies and European traditionals to modern day carols, any day guaranteed to perk up your senses. The concerts began with the choristers taking the stage in a candlelit procession, singing Silent Night (in itself a rarity – Silent Night is traditionally a closing song)

There are some choral pieces that readily evoke mental images of the Kings College Choir or the Vienna Boys Choir simply because it is almost inconceivable that anyone else could fill you with the same awe on performing them. It gives credence to the reputation of this Indian choir that not only did they attempt ‘O Magnum Mysterium’ & Cantata Domino’, but that their rendition could compare with the best in the world after, but of course, allowing for the shortcomings in live performances.

But the best moments of the concerts were the two Indian songs they performed, ‘Madhura Madhura’ in Marathi & a lullaby in Hindi, aptly titled ‘So Jaa Re’. Indian choral music might be one of the most under-rated if not unheard of traditions of music. Reminds me of the Tamilian composer Cooling Raja, absurd name though, who made some of the most beautiful Christmas music that ever greeted the ear. And don’t even get me started on Malayalam music.

There cannot be Christmas singing without the East European traditionals. Again a distinct stamp of beauty, the carols follow in the rich tradition of the all time greats. The choir did one German (that evergreen ode to the christmas tree, ‘O Tannenbaum’) & two Austrian pieces, plus a couple of Spanish numbers, each of them as pleasant as the other, but with its own unique touch.

But for all the talk of tradition, you cannot miss out on the music that audiences readily connect to. And quite rightly, the best cheers were reserved for the lively rendering of popular carols ‘Deck the Hall’ & ‘The Little Drummer Boy’, Not to mention two contemporary carols by William Dawson, one them which even had tinges of what you could pass of as rap music. (Okay, fancy a bunch a fifteen men singing rap, and you’ll realize why I didn’t call it rap per se). And then there were the congregational hymns, where the whole church joined in singing some of the most popular carols – That was an experience to cherish, a token of appreciation for an evening of splendid music.

The concerts finally closed with two of perhaps the most sought after songs in choral tradition. ‘For Unto Us A Child Is Born’ & finally the majestic ‘Hallelujah’ chorus (which still gives me Goosebumps every time I hear it, never mind that Iv heard it hundreds of times) from George Frideric Handel’s magnum opus ‘Messiah’. Admittedly, the quality of these two renditions failed to match the lofty standards the choir had signed for with its performance earlier in the day, but that is perhaps just nitpicking over an otherwise wonderful evening.

Somehow western choral music, even for its popularity among select pockets of music fans, remains an exclusive genre, even derided by Hindusthani experts as singing in ‘mostly false voice’. But what shouldn’t miss is the collective harmony produced when a multitude of trained voices combine to produce a soulful performance, like the Paranjoti Choir did this Christmas, that cannot be replicated in any other form of music. Whether you agree or not, the next time you rush to a music store to grab a recording of the Choir Of The Kings College, or The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, maybe you should bother to find out when this choir is performing right in your city. It will be worth it, I can guarantee you!

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