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Empathy, Humanity, and Truth

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Juilliard415 in India

In Mumbai, Juilliard415 had an exchange with about 100 Indian schoolchildren who participate in a choral program at the National Centre for the Performing Arts.

 

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In March, Juilliard415 and Yale's Schola Cantorum flew to India for a 13-day tour. Benjamin Sosland, the administrative director of Historical Performance, reported back about this, the fourth international tour the group has taken with the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. What follows are some excerpts.

Saturday, June 10, 7:00pm

Juilliard415's next tour is to New Zealand, from May 26 through June 10.

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March 11, Delhi

Our first group excursion was the Gardharva Mahavidyalaya Music School, the premiere conservatory for classical Indian music and dance in the country. Music is a completely improvisatory expertise here, and the level of technique and musicianship was amazing. We played our first concert two nights ago, a three-hour (!) extravaganza that started with a short performance from a local choir, which sang a mash-up of Western and Hindi music, and with whom we performed “And the Glory of the Lord” from Messiah. You know that cliché about music being the universal language and bringing people together? It's all true. Before the performance, one of our students, Greg LaRosa, gave an expert percussion demo for students from the American Embassy School, which loaned us music stands and timpani. Despite lingering jetlag, the concert was great and definitely on the exotic side for here, where Rameau and Bach aren't exactly household names.

March 15, Mumbai

We had an exchange with Indian schoolchildren who participate in a choral program here called Songbound, and there is simply no way to convey how deeply moving this experience was. Here were about 100 kids, most of whom come from extremely needy circumstances, hearing a near-professional level orchestra and choir for the first time. The joy on their faces was matched only by the generosity of our students, who basically invented an orchestral accompaniment, and by the Yale choir members who sat among the kids to learn a Hindi song, which we performed together, hand motions and all. We followed the exchange with an outdoor meal together. The experience was a reminder that our students are being transformed, perhaps in ways that they may not realize in the moment.

March 16, Aboard Air India

Our performance last night at the National Centre for the Performing Arts was fantastic. The group really settled in to the program, and sang and played with gusto and commitment. The centerpiece was This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity for Baroque orchestra, choir, sitar, and tabla, which was commissioned by Yale from the Indian-American composer Reena Esmail, a graduate of both Yale and Juilliard. The texts for the seven-movement work are taken from various religious traditions, including Christianity, Hinduism, and Jainism. The interweaving of Western and Indian instruments was ingenious, and the fact that a woman wrote the piece made a big impact.

The cornerstone of our visit to Mumbai was a tour of the Dharavi slum. I know what you're thinking: privileged Westerners being guided through the largest slum in Asia to gawk at the dark underbelly. Although we wanted to make sure that our students had more than just an anodyne, five-star tour, I and my Yale colleagues were nervous that it would be exploitative and imperialist. It was anything but. (And students who didn't want to come could opt out, as many did.) The tour guides, most of whom reside or were raised in the slum, are employed by an N.G.O. that gives 80 percent of its profits back for infrastructure, English classes, and life skills. And it is the understatement of a lifetime to say that they need whatever they can get.

Pictures were not allowed out of respect for the residents, so I can't share any visual evidence. But we found proud, industrious people, many of whom work in jobs—lots of them both illegal and toxic—that were right out of Heart of Darkness. This all takes place amid a labyrinth of improvised alleys, pathways, and warrens that are sided by open sewers, which drain directly into the Arabian Sea. The air was acrid and the level of filth was mindboggling, but there is electricity and running water for most, and a large percentage of residents are connected to the internet. There are schools and medical clinics, and people of various faiths appear to live in harmony. The place teems with life, a fully functioning city within a city.

We got back on our air-conditioned bus and were handed chilled water bottles to make our way to a buffet lunch at a fancy hotel, and the incongruity of it all was palpable. Conversations broke out from our very first-world perspective. Since the slum-dwellers (their designation) know no other life, are they happy? Judging by their fortitude, pride, and vivacity, especially among children, the answer is yes. Do they want to get out of the slum? Our guides said some people with the necessary means actually choose to stay because the community is so strong. How do they manage in those dreadful jobs? Not very well, apparently. The average life expectancy is 55. It just felt so far away from everything that we know.

So what does this have to do with music, or with what we do at Juilliard at all? Not very much, in a direct sense. But if, like me, you believe that artist-citizenship requires us to enter into situations that are both uncomfortable and foreign; or if you believe that an artist's palette of expression is broadened by experiencing life in many forms; or if you believe that our job is not just to train performing artists, but to encourage humanity, empathy, and truth, then you will agree with me that this visit had everything to do with what we do at Juilliard.

March 21, Chennai

The final leg of our subcontinental journey was in Chennai, a medium-sized city (by Indian standards) of nine million people. Juilliard415 played a standalone concert of Bach, Telemann, and Rameau under the expert leadership of Robert Mealy, in a 134-year-old theater that serves as one of the better reminders of British Imperial rule. Apparently we were kind of a big deal. The place was packed and one audience member who has been patronizing this venue for more than three decades could not recall an American orchestra ever having performed in Chennai! How cool is that?

Our final concert with the Yale choir was at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall, in Chennai. Some 700 ticketholders turned up, and many of us remarked on how refreshing it was to play for an audience that ranged in age and color. We played Reena Esmail's piece for the last time, and offered our appreciation for the extraordinary musicianship of our sitar player, Rabindra Goswami, and our tabla player, Ramu Pandit, who began this journey with us in New Haven. Both are revered figures in Indian classical music, and they opened our ears to a completely different palette of color and sound.

March 23, Amsterdam

I'm here to attend a conference of early-music conservatories, and the cultural whiplash has been a strange shock although I have to admit that it is really nice to be able to brush my teeth with tap water again. But our trip has been a reminder that we are not, in fact, the center of the world. Because one thing I have learned, and I think our students have as well on all our many travels with Juilliard, is that there is no center of the world. There are many.

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