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Sunday, 20 November 2011





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A measure of Romanticism with a punch of the bleeding-edge

Pix: Kesara Rathnavibhushana

'A Tri-Centenary Journey' concert by the Chamber Music Society of Colombo, directed by Lakshman Joseph de Saram and featuring Rolf-Erik Nystrom (Saxophone). was held on the November 13 at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute Auditorium.

In their sold-out November 13 concert at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute Auditorium, Sri Lanka's elite orchestra of the Chamber Music Society of Colombo led by Lakshman Joseph de Saram made a strong statement. Known mostly for their baroque and classical programming, the 'Society' responded decisively to the murmuring that they are just a one-trick-pony when it comes to repertoire, and unleashed an adventurous tour through three centuries of great music.

Beginning with Edward Grieg's melancholy 'Elegiac Melodies' and ending with the bleeding edge sounds of Rolf-Erik Nystrom, one of the most impressive new saxophonists of the world today, performing a world premiere work by Sri Lanka domiciled American composer Stephen Allen.

The November 13 concert represented the second collaboration between the Chamber Music Society and 'Concerts Norway,' the first, was a ground-breaking performance of the Society's orchestra in Jaffna, presented months after the conflict ended, the first western classical concert in the north of the country after three decades of isolation.

Coming back to the concert at hand, the auditorium of the SLFI, although very comfortable, was not totally conducive to a classical music concert, the lighting, flat level seating and general ambiance was not ideal.

The all-important acoustic, a little too much on the dry side and not the most sympathetic reverberations around. The Lionel Wendt, the CMSC's usual venue was un-available, we were informed.


Having said that, the sixteen member string section of the 'Society' ably compensated for the lack of acoustic warmth and hall resonance with more vigour and dynamism from their instruments, especially the front desk maestros, somehow giving the sense of virility and force of sound, traits that they are well known for.

Nilanthi Weerakoon, the sole double bass player that night, has to be credited for maintaining a very evident foundation throughout the concert.

Jean Sibelius's 'Andante Festivo' was the opening act, sonorous and romantic was the immediate reaction, with Sibelius's beautiful melodies given ample space to soar, one would have loved a bigger string section, or a warmer more reverberant acoustic. But it certainly put you in a relaxed frame of mind.

The next work was Witold Lutoslawski's 'Five Folk Melodies' for string orchestra. Quirky and interesting with an exciting flourish at the end, the modern inner harmonies were illuminated with just the right amount of balance giving the listener room to enjoy the charming folk inspired melodic phrases. Some sloppy ensemble work and less than perfect intonation in the faster movements, were the only obvious flaws.

It was interesting to notice the intense visual communication between the sections; a vital component of quality music making that is sadly absent in most other groups of this nature in the country.

Recognized as one of the leading composers in German modernism, Maximilian Reger's 'Liebestraum' composed in 1898, was clearly inspired by the great composers of the day, namely Wagner and Bruckner.

Once more, the overly dry acoustics and louder than usual air-conditioning did not flatter the muted dark sound the orchestra was striving to produce.

At this point of the concert, the printed program and what was to transpire on stage made little sense.


The listed Vasily Kalinnikov composed 'Serenade in G minor for strings' was never played. Instead, Saxophonist Rolf-Erik Nystrom came onstage and announced he was going to go off the 'program' and perform a duet with a Nagaswaram player. And there, right between the stoic un-smiling front desk first and second violinists, Rolf-Erik and the un-named Nagaswaram player sat crossed legged and commenced a long loosely raga based discourse of give and take. Although very unusual, it lasted too long and was also too loud for that hall, the Nagaswaram being primarily an outdoor instrument. The act may have also come across as a trifle too cliché, West meeting East living in harmony etc. We thought the 'Society' was more sophisticated in their programming, leaving the fusion gimmicks to the shows frequented by the 'fashion page' crowds.


One hopes, the Chamber Music Society will maintain its pristine elegance in programming and not try to fix something that is far from broken.

The world premiere of Stephen Allen, the composer in residence for the Chamber Music Society was next.

Titled 'Of Blood and Honey' and based on a chapter from the 5th century AD Mahavamsa. It was about a dream the legendary Queen Vihara Maha Devi had while being pregnant with Prince Gamani.

It would help to quote from the relevant chapter, 'To the Queen of Great Merit, there came the following cravings: to lay on her right side in a beautiful bed with a honeycomb the size of a bull at the head of the bed and to partake of the honey. To drink the water in which she washed a sword used to behead the chief warrior of King Elara.

To wear a garland of unfaded water lilies brought from the lily ponds of Anuradhapura where King Elara ruled. In due time Queen Vihara Maha Devi delivered a noble and beautiful son.'

There is no question that the CMSC relishes playing the works of Allen, the sheer drive and passion they put in to it was completely captivating. Although it was difficult to place the Queen's dream in context to the music, as absolute music goes, it was lovely to listen to. The extremely virtuosic Alto Saxophone part written for soloist Rolf-Erik's unique technique will ensure it is never played again anytime soon.


It is indeed a rarity these days for arts organizations to take chances with new music, given the conservative tastes of most concertgoers and the abundance of great music out there that is still waiting to be played. We therefore support the CMSC's progressive programming wholeheartedly.

Very impressive was Alexander Glazunov's concerto for Sax and String orchestra, op 109. Both soloist and conductorless orchestra were put to the ultimate test of executing a complicated piece of music that has most probably never been done before without a maestro in charge.

Although the concertmaster's bow was visibly and some may say distractingly used as a simple beat pointer at times, the orchestra negotiated the treacherous score with amazing accuracy using just their eyes, ears and each other. A master class in cohesion and mutual empathy, or just the result of plenty of rehearsals.

The concert ended with a new version of Bela Bartok's much-loved 'Romanian Folk Dances' Sz. 68. This outing had the Alto sax busking along with the strings.

If excitement and adrenaline was what you wanted, it delivered. Declining an encore, some may have noticed the inert arrogance in the musicians as they briefly basked and hurriedly left the stage amidst the customary standing ovation and bravos from the heady mix of tycoons, ambassadors and music lovers from all strata.

The hastiness to depart could have also been because the concert was longer than the usually perfect duration we are accustomed to with the CMSC.


The Chamber Music Society of Colombo, in four short years, has come to a point where they are only challenged, by themselves.

They have the support and active participation of the richest and most well-meaning arts patrons in the country, an exclusive group of professional musicians, and a ever growing audience of serious music lovers.

A very comfortable, but also dangerous place to be in. One hopes that they will continue to be the trailblazers and benchmark setters of western classical music in Sri Lanka, and not, like many others, slip into a lazy orbit of complacency and boredom which invariably leads to being just another 'band-for-hire.' This is a whole new Sri Lanka, and she deserves better.

We look forward to the CMSC's next concert with great anticipation. Generously sponsored by 'Concerts Norway,' it is worth noting that the unique cultural collaboration and support of 'Concerts Norway' with many Sri Lankan arts organizations has certainly been one of Norway's more successful, non-controversial and all-inclusive ventures in Sri Lanka. Along with implementing partner Sewalanka, the giant Sri Lankan NGO, the partnership has initiated many artistic programs, notably, the wonderful Galle and Jaffna Music Festivals.

Festivals that truly reflect Sri Lanka's ancient multicultural society, that are transparently not-for-profit, and purely for the sake of the art, unlike some other unashamedly commercially driven festival businesses.


LANKAPUVATH - National News Agency of Sri Lanka
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