ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday June 08, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 54

Curtains up!

Colombo’s newest orchestra takes a bow

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

The Chamber Music Society of Colombo has probably been this city’s best kept secret, till now. The Society recently presented its third preview concert programme for a limited and carefully selected crowd at the auditorium of the Goethe Institute Colombo. And yet again, it wowed its audience with the sheer exuberance, intensity and polish of its ensemble. The same programme presented at the residence of the US ambassador just the day before, it is learned, drew a standing ovation from the diplomats and corporate elites invited for the occasion by the ambassador.

The rather exclusive nature of the performances of this ensemble until now, may smack of elitism to some. But keeping its music the preserve of a privileged few is furthest from the intentions of its Artistic Director, Lakshman Joseph de Saram, whose vision is as progressive as it gets, in classical music circles. It has taken all of two years for him to perfect his “product” to a point where he is willing to go public with it. “I am notoriously reluctant – never satisfied enough with the performances, to go public,” he confesses. “But now I am confident, that the public will be quite amazed at what we have to offer.” The preview concerts are a means of “product testing,” as it were, allowing for a period of fine-tuning, which he likens to the meticulous process of wine-tasting that precedes the release of a high quality wine on the market.

So what’s so special about the repertoire of this new ensemble that delivers Mozart with such verve, without a conductor? A great deal that would have music enthusiasts excited, if the works performed to date are anything to go by. Two items on the programme of Saturday’s (24th May) concert, for example, were world premieres. One was a specially commissioned work by Dr. Premasiri Khemadasa, titled “Beyond the Horizon”, sung wordlessly by the accomplished soprano Eriko Tokura-Perera. The other was by the American Stephen Allen, titled “Paths in the Forest”, a composition for voice and eight solo strings sung (in English) again by Tokura-Perera.

Allen is a lover of Sri Lanka and has been living here for the past five years, somewhat as a recluse, having first come to this country to meditate. In the programme notes he says that writing these songs for the Society was for him an opportunity to express, in a creative way, his gratitude to this country. Of Khemadasa, Lakshman Joseph de Saram says it is to his association with the maestro that he owes his understanding of indigenous Sri Lankan sounds. He describes him as one who ‘cut the path’ that permitted foreign strains to enter the stream of Sri Lankan music.

Joseph de Saram’s own advanced musical training took place in the US, where he held a position at the highly competitive School of Performing Arts, and studied violin and trombone at the Manhattan School of Music and the Julliard Pre College. The mentor and guide who really made the difference however was Celibidache. “It is he who gave meaning to what would otherwise have been a mere skill I possess,” he says. And the difference shows. As a violinist, Lakshman Joseph de Saram’s performances in Colombo have always been riveting, standing apart from the rest.

The focus on new music is as central to the Chamber Music Society of Colombo as its commitment to works of Sri Lankan origin. Its mission is “fostering, discovering (or re-discovering) and performing new music of Sri Lanka, by Sri Lankan composers, or by other composers using Sri Lanka as a reference point.” It uses other music in its repertoire, because there isn’t a large enough body of music within Sri Lanka. The selected works need not necessarily be western-classical, but could be from any continent.

The choice of the “other music” that the ensemble has performed in its concerts so far, is itself remarkable. The Symphony No. 1 in D Major by Johann M. Dreyer (1747-1824), which brought the concert at the Goethe Institute to a close on a joyful note, was a sheer delight to hear. The Chamber Music Society of Colombo is the first group to perform the work of this little known German composer, after a Swiss chamber orchestra recorded his work for the first time last year.

Dreyer was composing music around the same time as Mozart, but his manuscripts were discovered only recently, by accident, in the library of a Benedictine convent. They are still in the process of being transcribed.

Lakshman Joseph De Saram was privileged to come by this music because he was in touch with a friend who worked in an archive for musical scores in Germany, who told him about it. At a preview concert held at the Ladies College Chapel in November last year, the ensemble along with the Colombo Philharmonic Choir performed a Mass by Dreyer. That too was a “rare treat” for the audience, both literally and figuratively speaking, considering that this wonderful music is still not accessible to the world at large.

Another aspect of this Society that makes it different is that it has a clear strategy in mind for making itself viable, for ensuring not just its survival but a means by which it can constantly upgrade the quality of its offering. At present, the musicians are not paid. They pledge their time and talent to the rigorous schedule of rehearsals demanded of them, on the basis of a shared belief in music and commitment to the project at hand. But this will soon change, with the introduction of discreet, high-end corporate patronage. By all accounts Colombo's corporate top brass have been bowled over by what they have seen and heard. Though it's not everyone's cup of tea, a 'founding patron' has already been secured, whose passion for quality is said to match the Society's own.

Lakshman Joseph de Saram's philosophy is that either he pays musicians what they deserve, or not at all. The corporate funding will be used not just to "rent the hall”, but to hire better musicians and to commission the composition of new music. "This is a quantum leap in the thinking on serious music in this town," he says. When musicians are being paid what they deserve, the Society will be able to attract the best available talent, and by the same token, it can demand higher standards of them.

In the end it seems to be some intangible, elusive "energy-factor" transmitted by the indefatigable Lakshman Joseph de Saram that sustains this ensemble, in the pursuit of its undoubtedly ambitious goals. If all goes well, Sri Lanka's music loving public can look forward to some revolutionary developments in the classical music landscape in the years ahead.

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