Relaxing with a cappuccino at Baristas, Horton Place, concert pianist Rohan De Silva is musing on music in general, and on Western classical music in particular – and the future of Western classical music in Sri Lanka. That future looks very promising, says the New York-based musician, who was in town recently on a two-week spring break, between giving concerts in the US and teaching at the Juilliard School, the prestigious performing arts academy in New York City.
In fact, in a sense, the future of Western classical in Sri Lanka lies just around the corner, literally – across the road from the top of Horton Place.
|Sri Lanka-born pianist Rohan De Silva says the music talents in this country need to be nurtured, funded and supported.
A couple of hundred yards from where we are seated is the site of the future National Theatre of Sri Lanka, which is coming up on what was once the Nomads Cricket Club grounds. Construction is going apace on what will be the country’s first state-of-the-art performing arts centre, an events venue and showpiece that will have the potential to make Sri Lanka a cultural capital on a level with other regional cultural powerhouses such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok. These Asian capitals boast top-flight performing arts venues where international arts festivals are held. Colombo may well be next in line as host to such events.
“I think it’s fabulous that the National Theatre is coming up, a gift from the Chinese government,” Rohan De Silva says.
The pianist envisions top musicians from around the world converging on Colombo to give concerts. As an award-winning, internationally recognised musician himself, who has performed with the best of artists – he gives regular concerts alongside the Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman – and as someone who moves in elite music circles, Rohan De Silva is in a strong position to make that dream happen. He says he would be happy to play a role in the future of classical Western music in this country, if invited to do so.
“If the Cultural Ministry approached me, I’ll be happy to offer my services as a consultant. Whatever I can do for the country, I am willing to do. If they need my advice, I could direct them where to go, where to get instruments from, who to consult.”
|Royal honour: Rohan De Silva with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, and US President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, at the state dinner given for the royals at the White House on May 7, 2007.
He believes local talent will be naturally drawn to the spotlight with the creation of the National Theatre, and that these talents will then start receiving the required attention. “We need to recognise our talented people, and those talents need to be funded, nurtured and supported.”
Having said that, he is quick to point out that a “fabulous” venue must have also “fabulous” contents, and as a classical pianist speaking for musicians on the international concert circuit, he means “fabulous pianos”. Nine out of ten concert pianists insist on playing on a Steinway, and not just any Steinway: It has to be a 9-foot grand, the standard concert hall instrument.
“My hope is that they will get at least one instrument, better still two or three, of decent quality. We need to get at least a couple of Steinway grand pianos from Germany. Concert pianos, 9-foot grands, are a lot of money, but I think we have the money. I believe the National Theatre is a huge hall. We can have more than one grand, one for the main hall and one for a chamber music hall. The potential is there.”
De Silva sees a good instrument as a necessity, rather than a luxury – a must that international musicians require and local musicians are crying for. “As concert artists, this is something we are starved of. We don’t have good instruments in this country. We have ramshackle instruments in our institutions, like the SLBC and Rupavahini. I was playing on these instruments at least 35, 40 years ago, when I was a child, and they are in such bad shape.
“There are one or two 7-foot instruments, as in the Lionel Wendt, and they are okay. But okay is not good enough. You have one of Asia’s top performing arts centres coming up, and you need the equivalent. If it is a brand-new hall, you need a brand-new instrument. It’s going to cost a lot – about US$200,000, and with duty it could come to US$250,000 – but you can do something about it. We import other items to this country, some of which may not be really necessary, but this is something you need. India has it, Singapore has it – they have fabulous instruments, and Bangkok has it. Why not Sri Lanka? We have everything else. This is an absolute priority for music in this country.”
De Silva taps repeatedly on the Steinway theme, much like a piano pedagogue hitting a single note on the keyboard to make a point in a music class. Say Steinway, and he is instantly protective and insistent, almost on the offensive-defensive.
“We need to get a Steinway. We don’t want another brand of piano, just because someone is donating it. With a good piano we will attract other artists, foreign artists, who are on their way to other destinations, via Colombo. When they hear about the fabulous hall we have, and the fabulous instruments, they’ll say, hey, I would love to go to Sri Lanka – they have a great instrument and a great hall. “That’s how we concert artists function, when we are overseas. Whether it’s Carnegie Hall, in New York, or London or Tokyo, you go there because you love the halls there and you love the instruments. If you have those, then it’s complete. And the musician, the pianist, knows he won’t have to struggle with the instrument. He can play freely, from the heart, and not be thinking when the next string is going to pop.
|Rohan De Silva and Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman take a bow
after one of their recitals.
“And if we get these good pianos, they cannot be used for any old purpose. They have to be used only for classical music concerts. You cannot use Steinways for those kinds of things. First of all, you have to respect the instrument. In this country, they will put a flower vase on top of the piano, or an ornament. They use the piano like a piece of furniture. It is so sad. Just as we respect the sitar and the tabla, we have to respect the Western musical instruments.”
De Silva is confident that once the basics are in place, with funding flowing and the right people in charge, good music-making will follow, and with the best of artists.
But a lot needs to be done before that can happen, he says. One of the first steps is to find the resources. “Yes, we need the resources, we need the sponsorships. I am sure sponsorship is not an issue. I hope this will all happen. Hong Kong, Singapore – these countries were once way behind us. Years ago, they were looking up to us. We can do it, because we have the talent.”
The next step is to entice back – at least, for the purpose of giving concerts – the Sri Lanka-born talents who now live and work overseas. Not enough has been done, according to De Silva, to encourage Western music in the country – and to make musicians who have “made the grade”, as they say in the music world, come back and show their fellow countrymen what they can do.
“It is sad. We are all doing things overseas. Look at the cellist Rohan de Saram. Look at Druvi, his brother, a fabulous pianist, though now retired from music. And we have the local talents right here who could contribute. We could do East meets West. We can have a little five-day festival.
We could get artists like Rohan de Saram, the soprano Danielle De Niese, who has never been to Sri Lanka but whose parents are from here, the tenor Sean Panikkar, who sang at the Metropolitan Opera in New York two weeks ago, the pianist Sujeewa Hapugalle, and so on. Five concerts in one week would be more than enough to cover the next couple of years, rather than having an elaborate festival. That’ll draw the audiences in, with the proper publicity, and with the logistics right.
“We will all come, and we can have a wonderful festival of the Sri Lankan artists who are residing abroad and who have done well. But nobody has asked us. Ask us. “My friend, the jazz singer Yolande Bavan, finally came, after 35 years, to sing in Sri Lanka. She is a known name in the US, and in the whole jazz world. Why did she have to wait 35 years to come here to sing?
“But first, after the hall is completed, get the proper instruments. The Cultural Ministry needs to understand that, in order to get us to come here. You cannot ask musicians to come here and then ask them to take short-cuts.
There are no short-cuts when it comes to your instruments. Absolutely not. We have money to spend on some things, but we don’t have a decent instrument. I am not blaming one or two people. I blame the community for not looking into these things. I think that other Sri Lankans, all my artist colleagues who are living in the West and who are engaged with the Western music world, would agree.”
De Silva is wondering whether to order another cappuccino. He looks at his watch. He has a busy schedule. The previous day he had visited his alma mater, Isipathana College, Colombo, where he was welcomed as a distinguished old boy, someone who had brought credit to school and country.
In the evening, he will attend a special dinner held in his honour by the school principal, the teachers and old boys. The past two weeks have been spent relaxing at his home in Colombo and catching up with old school friends and music colleagues. He flies back to New York on the weekend. During his 33 years of living overseas, he has visited Sri Lanka at least once a year. In the last three years, he has been visiting twice a year, in summer and during the Christmas or spring vacations.
“I love coming home. This is home for me. One day I will come and retire here. I am proud of being Sri Lankan, and I am very much a Sri Lankan at heart. I have been in New York 27 years, England six years, but I am still the same person I was then, when I left this country.”
De Silva has little patience with Sri Lankans who have a problem with their national identity. “I think it is disgraceful for Sri Lankans to go overseas and come back and not speak their language. And some of the children here who go to overseas schools do not speak Sinhala. I think that’s disgraceful. I go to restaurants and hear young Sri Lankans ordering food and drink in English. It is the parents who are to be blamed for their children not speaking their mother language. And they speak with accents. What are these accents? Why do we copy some foreign culture? It is so sad.”
On a brighter note, De Silva talks about memorable concerts he has been involved in, but none more memorable than the 25-minute recital he and Itzhak Perlman gave at the White House, when US President George W. Bush hosted Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip of Britain at a state dinner during the royals’ visit to the US in May 2007.
The dinner was on May 7, and it was the first white-tie event at the White House in eight years. He described it as possibly the most perfectly “orchestrated” event he had witnessed, with every detail immaculately in place, and the official photo opportunity with just himself and the Head of the United States and the Head of the Commonwealth and their spouses as nothing less than “thrilling”.
The former US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, is a friend. A fine amateur pianist herself, Ms. Rice keeps reminding De Silva of their promise to get together some time for a session of two-piano or four-hands-one-piano music-making. This will happen when their busy but very different schedules permit. Besides giving concerts in the US and around the world, De Silva is on the faculty at The Juilliard School and a guest professor at the Senzoku-Gakuen Music College in Tokyo, while Condoleezza Rice is now a political science professor at Stanford University.
That De Silva has friends in high places can only be good for Sri Lanka, if he is to play a role in the future of classical music here. Eminent colleagues in music include the violinists Midori, Vadim Repin, Joshua Bell, Gil Shaham, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Cho-Liang Lin, Benny Kim, Kyoko Takezawa and Julian Rachlin – all of whom have given recitals with De Silva in the US and around the world. (We had the pleasure of attending one such recital, a Midori-Rohan De Silva concert in Hong Kong in the late 1980s, and meeting De Silva after the recital to talk about his career and accomplishments.)
De Silva pulls out a copy of the after-dinner speech he will give at the Isipathana College function that night and makes notes. A perfectionist at the keyboard, he also makes sure he gets it right as a speech-giver – getting the phrasing and the timing right and, most important, hitting the right notes.