You’ve been performing for The Poona Music Society for many years. Tell us how this association began, how it grew and what made it sustain for so long.
My first visit to Pune was in 1989, though unrelated to anything musical…it was part of a rough-and-ready backpacking trip throughout Asia, and India (which I had always wanted to visit), was on the itinerary. As it turned out, I was so fascinated by your country that I cancelled the rest of the trip and stayed over 2 months in India, travelling pretty much everywhere, mainly by second-class railway and rickety bus! All the major cities, tourist sites, temple towns, many rural areas, from Kanyakumari to Darjeeling, all over Rajasthan, Kerala, UP…it was an amazing journey of discovery, and life-changing to say the least. Pune was a particular delight to visit, and a relief from the heat of Bombay! I stayed in a little hotel near the railway station, and enjoyed many a long walk through the city. Am a history buff, so the Gandhi connection was especially interesting, as was the colonial architecture in Camp, and the fascinating Shaniwar Peth area.
When I returned to Canada, my piano tuner, who coincidentally was a Goan who had worked for years in the Bombay area, encouraged me to explore the possibility of performing concerts in India. His name was Francis Manricks, and I’ll always be eternally grateful to him! He gave me a list of contacts, music societies, orchestras, concert series etc, among which was the Poona Music Society. I contacted everyone on the list (by snail-mail in those days) and managed to put together a fairly substantial tour, mainly solo recitals but also concertos in Mumbai, Delhi and Calcutta, and masterclasses throughout the country. This was in the autumn of 1991, a Mozart year (200th anniversary of his death), so I was asked to play Mozart in particular.
The first concert I gave in Pune was on October 12, 1991 in Gulati Hall, and the programme included Beethoven’s « Appassionata » as well as Bach, Mozart, Fauré, Barber and Gershwin. It was a lovely experience, I loved the hall and piano, reacquainted myself with the city and made many new friends. I vowed to return to perform as soon as possible, which I did 2 years later, and several times since then.
Are there any particular memories of working with the PMS or of performances in Pune that you would like to share with us?
One memory stands out in particular : I happened to be in Pune on September 30, 1993 when the devastating earthquake in Latur struck. It was a heartwrenching time, as news reports poured in of the many thousands killed, injured, made homeless. A day or two later, I played a recital, in Gulati Hall, which became a fundraiser for the survivors of that disaster. On the programme was Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30, Op. 110, a particularly spiritual work which plumbs the depths of life, death, despair, hope…I verbally dedicated my performance to the memory of the victims, and I remember how moving it was to share this sublime music at such a tragic time.
What about when you’re not playing…you’ve given masterclasses and lessons to students here in Pune, and also worked with choirs. Can you tell us what this has been like?
A big part of my delight in revisiting Pune over these years has been interacting with teachers, students, conductors and others in the musical scene, many of whom have now become close friends. The level of musicianship in Pune is extremely high, and it is such a joy to return repeatedly and find that the level is consistently maintained. So many young pianists I heard in masterclasses years ago have developed their talents and are playing superbly now, a testiment to the expert teaching to be found in Pune, and many are making their livings in the music world. I’ve also enjoyed being involved as guest-pianist with choral groups, especially when the programmes themselves are especially interesting.
What does it feel like to visit Pune so often? Have you noticed changes in the concert-going audience over the years?
I have always found Pune audiences quite discerning and « with it ». Over the years I’ve befriended many music lovers in Pune who possess vast collections of recordings, who are passionate « audiophiles » and own all the latest high-end sound equipment, who know all the major classical artists, past and present, and have strong and informed opinions about musicians and interpretations. I remember, after my very first recital here in 1991, a lady approaching me backstage. On the programme was Fauré’s 6th Nocturne, and she remarked that, although she enjoyed my performance, she wished I had played his 13th Nocturne instead….now Fauré’s 13th Nocturne is a wonderful piece but little- known, rarely played and not particularly accessible to the average audience. So I was very impressed by her remark! I also remember an elderly gentleman who told me after a Schubert sonata that, in his opinion, I took the last movement too fast! And he was right!
My only negative comment about returning to Pune repeatedly over the years is observing the enormous changes in the city itself: the increase of traffic, pollution, noise, chaos… Pune, 25 years ago, was a very different place. Many areas I remember fondly are unrecognizable today. My former long walks through the city are a lot less enjoyable now. The price of progress, sadly.
Our new website will have a section about the musical instruments owned by the PMS. You had played for the inaugural concert of the Blüthner. Could you tell us more about it? Do you remember the pieces you played, the build-up to acquiring this new piano and the feeling around that first concert?
I remember vividly the excitement and pride of all the organizers, fundraisers and sponsors who managed to make the purchase of this wonderful—but very expensive—instrument a reality! It’s hard to believe it is already 20 years ago…The inaugural concert was on March 5, 1995 in Gulati Hall (Mazda Hall wasn’t in the picture yet) and I shared the programme with Pervez Mody, a terrific Indian pianist who had studied at the Moscow Conservatory. I had the great honour of playing the very first music heard publically on the new Blüthner that evening: it was Schubert’s, « An die Musik » (To Music), an appropriate choice under the circumstances. My repertoire that evening included Bach, Chopin, and some American works, while Pervez played Beethoven, DeFalla and Scriabin. In addition, there was a world premiere of Vanraj Bhatia’s song cycle, « Tantric Meditations », performed by Zarin Ghadialy-Hodiwala and myself. It was truly a « gala » evening, both exciting and moving, the audience as thrilled as we were with the new piano. It is a tribute to PMS that the piano is still in marvellous shape, still among the very best instruments in India. I always love playing on it, especially in its present home, the acoustically-excellent Mazda Hall.
We also have an appeal for the restoration of our Steinway. Have you played on that instrument? Do you have anything that we could add to this fund raiser?
Before the Blüthner was purchased, the old Steinway was the main PMS performing instrument, and my first concerts in Pune, up until 1995, were always on it. I have great memories playing on this magnificent, vintage instrument… sadly, like all pianos, time takes its toll and it is in serious need of work to bring it back to its former glory. It will be a major expense, but I feel this is an extremely important and worthwhile project, and have already planned to do some fundraising of my own in Canada in aid of this project. Along with another Canadian pianist who has played in Pune, Mathieu Gaudet, we are devising a duo programme to be performed in Canada, the proceeds of which will be donated to your restoration fund.
What of the future? Anything particular message you have for us on this 70th anniversary and for the years ahead?
70 years is a major achievement for any arts organization, anywhere in the world! I congratulate you all for this landmark anniversary. The Poona Music Society has performed an invaluable service to your city, allowing several generations of music lovers to experience live classical music, and introducing countless young people to this great art. Despite the many challenges we all face in the arts, I very much hope the PMS will continue well into the future. I may not be around for the 100th…but please ask me back for the 75th!!