Acclaimed composer Vanraj Bhatia's piano concerto, last performed in 1959, gets revived at a music fest celebrating 70 years of freedom
An archival photo of Vanraj Bhatia. He studied music composition at the Royal Academy of Music, London, for which he earned a gold medal. File Pic
Fifty-eight years ago, Vanraj Bhatia's Concerto in One Movement resounded through Sir Cowasjee Jehangir Hall, a historic venue in the city that had played host to recitals by Yehudi Menuhin, Paul Robeson, and the Bombay Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mehli Mehta. It must have been one of the last piano concerts at the hall, which fell into disuse in the 1960s until it was resurrected as the National Gallery of Modern Art in 1996.
As if on cue, the complex composition, which was never performed after the 1959 concert, is now being resurrected at Con Brio 2017, a Western music festival and piano competition known for recognising and honing budding artistes. Presented by Furtados and the NCPA, the theme for this year is 70 years of Independence, and the line-up has an Indian connection. Bhatia's concerto will be presented along with his violin sonatina.
"I got the music about a month ago in the form of a manuscript, hand-written by Mr Bhatia. The experience was different as all of us are used to reading printed notes," says well-known pianist Dr Marialena Fernandes, who will be presenting the concerto at the festival, and has been rigorously training local musicians for it. Born in Mumbai, the professor at the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna, feels it is a complex piece. "As someone trained in music of European modality, I had to read beyond the notes to create an interpretation of the work," she says.
Marialena Fernandes (in saree) at the Con Brio festival
"Mr Bhatia is a dear friend. I am often over at his place, where a lot of things are waiting to be discovered. I came across this manuscript on one such visit," says Parvesh Java, artistic director of Con Brio. "It lay with me for a long time because for performing a piece like that, which is technically demanding and has an Indian sound world, the biggest challenge was identifying a pianist who was willing to do something bold. And Marialena has the skill, guts and dedication to do that."
Bhatia's hand-written manuscript. Notice his little drawings around the title, which come from a French influence
Bhatia, who turned 90 in May, recalls the 1959 performance: "Shanti Seldon was at the piano and Howard Boatwright was the conductor." Known for his music in most of Shyam Benegal's films, including Ankur, Manthan, and Sardari Begum, as well as iconic TV series Tamas and Discovery of India, the award-winning composer is also a pioneer in the world of advertising jingles. He will hear the new rendition for the first time at the concert on Saturday.
Java shares some history about the piece. "Back then, the director of the orchestra forbade the piece from being performed because it was composed by an Indian. However, Boatwright threatened to make a scandal of the whole thing and insisted on going ahead," he says. "Times are different today. We have an entire concert only by Indian composers of Western music."
In the opening concert of the three-day festival, performers will explore works by Western composers who were strongly influenced by India. Nikolai Medtner's composition, which was dedicated to the Maharajah of Mysore, will be heard in a two-piano version. On the second day, a programme of works solely by Indian composers in the Western paradigm will be presented.
The semi-finalists for the competition will also perform complete classical sonatas. The fest will end with performance of compositions created during the last year under the Raj (1946-47).
ON: August 11 (7 pm), 12, (11 am and 7 pm) and 13 (6.30 pm)
AT: Experimental Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point.
ENTRY: Rs 240 onwards
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