‘Conducting Indian singers has been most moving’

George Mathew is an Indian origin conductor who is creating waves in the Western Classical Music scene.

George Mathew is an Indian origin conductor who is creating waves in the Western Classical Music scene. He has conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony among others at the prestigious Carnegie Hall and was named the Artistic Director and Conductor for New Year Eve’s Concert for Peace at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City in year 2010. Through Music for Life International and Ubuntu-Shruti, which he founded, he has helped to raise funds for global humanitarian causes and also provided a platform for professional orchestra training.
In New Delhi to present the ‘Mozart Magic in India’, George Mathew spoke with’s Akrita Reyar about the experience and more. It was a riveting performance on the weekend, how much preparation went into presenting the Mozart mosaic in Delhi? The process of rehearsal began in mid-November and went on in stages. The guest chorus master and I came in from Paris and New York in November and worked with the chorus and soloists. I also rehearsed with The Bombay Chamber Orchestra for a few days in early December. The final rehearsals started this week on the 2nd of January with the soloists and piano. The two orchestras came together on January 3rd beginning the final week of intensive musical and staging rehearsals with the singers and chorus which completed the journey to the performances. How was your experience working with a rainbow of artistes and musicians including some amateurs from India? It`s always a wonderful enriching experience, though not particularly unique. Orchestras and opera companies in big cities around the world tend to be multi-national, multi-ethnic and quite diverse. But it was rather fun to be able to use the fantastic variety of languages and musical idioms in India to illustrate and explain what was needed. It was the first time I have rehearsed in English, French, Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam in a single production. Mozart Magic in India was unique in the sense that it was a medley of excerpts of several Mozart creations than the presentation of a full opera. What is the idea behind this? Actually the concept of a concert of opera scenes is quite traditional. Mozart himself did concerts of scenes of operas more than 200 years ago. It`s a wonderful way of giving an audience a taste of multiple operas without playing whole works. Composers and producers often used this as a marketing tool to promote their works. You have conducted Beethoven’s world famous Ninth Symphony several times, please compare and contrast Mozart with him and his music. Mozart represents a profound culmination of the order that was classical 18th Century music -- an elegant but largely unconscious expression of a sensibility of orderliness. Beethoven, on the other hand, was an expression of a Western world that had changed as precipitously and as rapidly as India has in the last twenty years. New possibilities have exploded on the horizon both promising and dangerous. Beethoven manifests new values of individualism and most of all, of choice. Mozart represents an apex of order which is necessarily the background against which Beethoven`s new found self-empowerment and choice would flourish. Beethoven`s intensity of artistic intention and searching was such that he unwittingly began to predict in his music some of the radical new perceptions and ideas of the 20th century, such as quantum mechanics and relativity. In the observations of my colleague and American composer Mark Kuss who has been present at our Delhi concerts, “Mozart had the unique ability and fertility of thought to express the endless variety of the human condition within the constraints of the old order, much as the India of pre-1991 economic liberalization was not necessarily all bad or even lesser but a varied place of enormous constraints, tradition and regulation. The new India, much like Beethoven’s music, contains explosive possibilities for transformative choice but with a newly enabled perspective and respect for the traditions that came before.”Who is your favourite composer and which is your favourite composition? It`s usually the one whose music I am doing at the moment. Last week it was English composer Michael Tippett and his oratorio "a child of our time", this week it was Mozart and his operas. Considering that you have conducted in New York and world over including at Carnegie, which concert in particular has been special for you personally? These concerts with the Neemrana Opera involving the Bombay Chamber Orchestra and these wonderful South Asian singers are perhaps the most meaningful concerts that I have ever conducted. I have dreamed of conducting in India for most of the last quarter century and to do it here with these energetic and spirited Indian singers and players has been just so moving. Tell us about Music for Life International and your venture Ubuntu-Shruti. About six years ago, I started doing large symphonic concerts to support global humanitarian causes and issues - focusing on creating transformative media, financial impact for people affected by natural disasters, violence and conflict, disease, poverty, and other public interest issues. A wonderful community of some of the most distinguished musicians from the worlds of orchestral, choral and operatic music joined us for these concerts which have all been held at Carnegie Hall. After the first two of these concerts, our friends and supporters helped to create Music for Life International, a charitable foundation to support these concerts and our social impact work through music. Music for Life takes its extraordinary concert for HIV/AIDS that American musical icon Leonard Bernstein did in the late 1980s at Carnegie Hall. Ubuntu-Shruti is our exciting new professional training orchestra of young, empowered musicians coached by distinguished mentor artists from the New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic and others, creating inspired music and programming focused on immigrants, community and education through music. Modelled after the Berlin Philharmonic Academy, Ubuntu-Shruti will be built on an orchestral paradigm that take its energies from the principles of chamber music, of leadership from every single chair whether in front or the back, of sectional accountability and mutual empowerment and not merely a benevolent dictatorship managed by the conductor. You have tried to use music as a philanthropic tool and you have talked of “transformation through music”. In a violence riddled world, do you really see music as an instrument that can bring peace? Ensemble music is more of an engine of behavioural transformation than a “philanthropic tool” though it can certainly be framed as the latter. The very act of sitting down to play music together has in its very essence the prefatory qualities that lead to empathy. The narrative of the self has been practiced and internalized but the narrative of the OTHER is what creates texture and dimension within the relationship. Ensemble music is a place where the science of agreements is practiced on more levels and more constantly than almost any other sphere that I can think of. In the moment of making music together, our previous histories and identities fall away and we become people trying match notes, colours, pitch, rhythms precisely because we have to listen with the assumption that the other person’s perspective is at least as important, if not more important than my own. It’s all about listening with a view to seeing/hearing from the angle of the other. In other words, a relationship that precludes violence in its essence. Do you also follow Indian classical music? Would you like to conduct a purely traditional Indian music concert or even an amalgam of Western and Indian? I am very fond of Indian classical musics such as Hindustani, Carnatic, Dhrupad and others. Purely Indian Classical music generally does not need a conductor. However, exciting new developments are underway especially in the new India where young composers of Indian and other backgrounds are finding fresh ways of engaging each other’s music to create powerfully expressive “amalgams” that we cannot even imagine yet. I am already seeing the birth of works of a new and vibrant generation of composers who are engaging these musics and their differences in extraordinary new ways much like the emerging presence of new and old African-American and Latin American musics energized and transformed the American musical landscape through the dizzying variety music of early 20th Century masters like Gershwin, Copland, Duke Ellington and others. Tell us something about yourself. How did you choose music as a career? Or should we say music chose you! I think it is fair to say that music chose me!