Monday, April 23, 2012

Opera Night by Shekinah Shawn



One of the biggest barriers to blogging was the firewall at office. I realized that I used to blog in office and my output dried up ever since the firewall came up and after I started using Twitter on my smart phone.

Nevertheless I have decided to solve this handicap by composing the blog and emailing it for posting later. Two events recently warrant mention and pulled me out of my inertia. I will start with the recent event Opera Night.

I was informed of a person from Chennai who has completed the FTCL qualification in singing, for the uninitiated (like I was very recently) it expands to the Fellowship of the Trinity College London and it is the summit for those who wish to get a qualification in western classical singing. I am aware of a few who have completed the lower levels in music mostly the piano but this I was assured was a first not just in the city but in the country also.

More information on this singer came in the Metro Plus of the Hindu recently when Shekina Shawn was introduced to many of us as the only singer from India who has achieved this rare distinction and in a short space of 5 years. I found out that this singer would perform in Chennai on the 22nd of April and I kept it aside as my knowledge of western classical music is painfully limited.

A friend who was part of the string, woodwind ensemble that was to accompany her suggested that the concert was worthwhile and to sweeten the offer threw in one complimentary pass and suggested that I bring my wife along for the cost of one. I accepted and after being warned that it was free seating at the Musuem theatre and early arrival would get a better seat, we reached the venue half an hour early to realize that we were probably half hour late. The parking lot was overflowing with cars and it took a few minutes to find a slot in the sprawling museum grounds.

We found some seats towards the corner and so we got a restricted view of the stage thankfully the singer was unobstructed and so it was fine. It was a pleasant surprise to see the concert start on time with a film of the Help a Child of India, a charity towards which this concert was organized.

The host for the evening Mr. P.C. Ramakrishna was not fully prepared to host a western classical evening but made up for it with his years of stage experience. The programme sheet for the concert listed out 16 pieces and most of them were in either Italian or German and so for those who did not know the language it was a challenge. The thoughtful translation provided was a big help though.

The audience for the evening warrants a mention. It was a full house with a few 1000 rupee tickets available at the venue when the concert was about to start, during the evening there was not a seat vacant in the hall. From toddlers to senior citizens they were all there and there were a good number of expatriates also. Towards the end of the show there were a few people sitting on the steps and as a measure of success the show was certainly on the top.

The star of the evening Shekina was introduced on to the stage and she sang 4 pieces as listed below:
  1. So shall the lute – Judas Maccabaeus – G.F. Handel
  2. Lauda Muste – Mass in C Minor – W.A. Mozart
  3. Quella fimma – Italian Art song – Benedetto Marcello
  4. Ma rendi pur contento – Sei arietta – Vincenzo Bellini

Shekina was wearing a dress that was very unflattering and maybe it was stage fright or maybe she was not warmed up enough but the first piece was faint and the mikes made up for the lack of power in the voice. The first set accompanied by Edwin Roy was a pleasure to hear also because of the wonderful accompaniment.

The next set of songs were accompanied by the other pianist for the evening Leslie David. These pieces are listed below:
  1. An Den Mond – Lied – Franz Schubert
  2. Pretty Flower – 20thC art song – Kerin Bailey
  3. Summer Time – Porgy and Bess – George Gershwin

As the pieces moved on Shekina seemed to gain in confidence and her voice opened out more. The second set was less involving as far as the accompaniment went but it was nevertheless good to hear.

The string and woodwind ensemble was introduced next along with the conductor for the evening Augustine Paul who received a rousing welcome. I suspect the audience had several of his students and choir members. A very soothing performance by the ensemble conducted by Augustine Paul was the next piece called
    8. Air on a G string by J.S. Bach

Shekina came back on stage, this time in a gorgeous gown that really made her glow. Unrelated or not the next set of songs saw her open up and get more involved in the singing. Her expressions became more vivid and she seemed to enjoy being accompanied by the ensemble. The next set of songs is as follows:
9. Un pensiero – Il trionfo del tempo e del Disinganno – G.F. Handel
10. When I am laid – Dido & Aeneas – Henry Purcell
 (the name of this interestingly named piece came in for some mention by the host)
11. Agitata da due venti – La Griselda – Antonio Vivaldi

There was a small break when the Guest soloist for the evening Ebenezer Arunkumar who I believe is an ATCL or LTCL in singing. He performed one number accompanied by Leslie David called:
       12. Nessun Dorma – Turandot – Giacomo Puccini

I am not qualified to comment on singing; however I did feel that the song seemed a trifle forced. However it was a pleasure to hear a male voice singing and it was a minor disappointment that the piece was short.

The backing choir for the evening got on stage and curiously they were quite casual about it all. It seemed by design however it did look out of place where the conductor was in a tail coat, the main singer in a gown and the orchestra in black formals to see the choir standing nonchalantly with arms draped over the shoulders. Maybe the song demanded it? The next piece backed by the choir was
      13. Habanera – Carmen  - Georges Bizet

This piece was enjoyable as I have a slight inclination to group singing versus the soloists, I personally enjoyed the choir backing.

The choir left the stage and as we learnt later to change into black and whites for the last song. The last set or the finale saw Shekina really get into the music and she seemed to be having fun. Whether it was the fact that she had done the first section well or it was because by now her voice had opened up fully or it was the structure of the programme she was really expanding her range and it made for very pleasant hearing. The final set of songs is as follows:
    14. Marten Aller Arten – Die entfuhrung aus dem Serail – W.A. Mozart
    15. Tacea la Notte – Il Trovatore – Guieseppe Verdi
    16. Non piu mesta – La Cenerentola – Geoachino Rossini


The finale “Non Piu mesta” had the choir backing Shekina again, as mentioned they came back after the change of clothes and seemed more orderly. Four other singers also backed Shekina in this piece which was very well done.

The concert ended to a standing applause and the applause continued when the audience cheered the conductor Augustine Paul. Bowing to the audience demand Shekina did give the pleased audience an encore of two numbers, pieces 9 and 16.

As I am not a musician and am not qualified to comment on the musical aspects I have just given a brief of the concert but a few points worth a mention:

-         The use of mikes could have been avoided considering that the hall was small, there were no fans and in olden days mikes were absent
-         Augustine Paul had wonderful control on stage and though I could not make out the control on the orchestra he had a wonderful understanding with the singer and the choir, from years of choir direction
-         The sense of pride and achievement was undisguised on the face of Augustine Paul each time a difficult piece was completed by Shekina or the ensemble and it was very nice to see
-         The speaking voice of Shekina was a shocker considering her singing voice!
-         The audience was quite cultured and enjoyed the performance however it was still rankling to hear mobile phones ringing loudly at least on three instances during the show
-         The vote of thanks seemed to exclude the musicians and could have been better planned
-         There was a small ceremony where the diploma was handed over to Shekina by the representative in India of the Trinity College London. He confirmed the uniqueness of the feat and said that she is one of the very few globally to achieve this distinction.

My final take was that music has no language and you do not need to know music to have a great time. We certainly did and hope to catch many more such events.


1 comment:

Susan Deborah said...

Thanks for this detailed review, Clement. I really wanted to make it but being in Tiruvarur, I couldn't afford to come there as I anyway have to come again for the Bloggers' meet on the 28th.

Shekinah comes to our church and inspite of not knowing her, I like her singing. She has sung many times in our Church but I am yet to hear her talent on the Western Classical front.

Maybe some other time.

Joy always,
Susan