A rare passion

Reaching great heights on the harpsichord, Prof. Preethi de Silva who was in Colombo recently, shared her unusual musical journey with Namali Premawardhana. Pic by Ranjith Perera.

Her precise articulation, the firm gestures and the way in which her short hair is held back by clips is enough to tell you that Preethi de Silva brooks no nonsense.

In Colombo last month from California, USA, to deliver the Susan George Pulimood oration at her alma mater Visakha Vidyalaya, she was clear and compelling, holding her audience spellbound as she talked of ‘why music matters’. But to see her at the keyboard, her small delicate hands coaxing the harpsichord to life with their gentle touch, to hear her bring Handel and Bach back alive, is to know the real woman.

Delivering the Susan George Pulimood oration at Visakha on , “Why music matters”.

The beginnings of her musical career lie in a mother's vision. Preethi describes how despite being a well-known painter, her mother had wanted to be a musician and how she made sure all her children took music lessons. "My father used to say that he's tone deaf," she laughs, remembering nevertheless that he was encouraging and that he understood their mother. "She pushed me and encouraged me," Preethi smiles fondly, "she believed that I had the talent and went to all ends to get me here."

And "here" is no simple thing. Preethi de Silva had come past the Royal Academy of Music, past scholarships for music studies in Berlin and at the University of Yale with world-renowned harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick, past extensive performance internationally, past the publication of a good three-inch-thick book - the result of 20 years of research "on a whim" - and past internationally acclaimed early music ensemble Con Gioia. After all this, the Susan George Pulimood Memorial Oration seemed almost routine, but Preethi says it was a "challenging" experience for her.

This year's trip back home has opened her eyes to how "everyone in Colombo goes to music lessons or whatever", but there are also those who have nearly no access to musical instruments or training. She speaks of that larger part of our nation "who are just making ends meet or not even making ends meet", reminding me of the teledrama series Arungal, that captured for its audiences, our nation and culture that understands and appreciates the pricelessness of music but disregards it because of its lack of market value.

"Music is either just a hobby or just entertainment,” Preethi says regretfully, careful to add that there is a difference between art as entertainment and intellectual practice. It takes not just one but many with passion and commitment to make this distinction clear, and Prof. Preethi de Silva is unquestionably one of those.

At the age of 17, with father and older siblings all practising medical doctors, Preethi was faced with the dilemma of choosing between music and medicine. "I was torn!" she exclaims, needing no further explanation, for many of us know the plight of having to choose either the practical or the desired. "But I don't regret the decision at all," she declares matter-of-factly, describing how though medicine seemed at the time like a much more "giving" profession, she has come to realize that performance is "not just for myself" but an act of sharing something with her audience as well.

And so young Miss de Silva found herself studying music, first in London and then in Germany. It was here that she was introduced to something that would define the course of her musical career; the opportunity to perform on antique instruments. "I was always a great admirer of J. S. Bach," she shares, large bright eyes complementing her glowing smile, "it's not just beautiful music, but the structures, the intricacies… everything about it is so inspiring!" She explains with keen interest the workings of the different keyboard types and their differences in tone quality and performance techniques. Playing on the harpsichord and fortepiano (the main instruments for which Bach and Mozart respectively wrote), says Preethi, really helped her to understand the music better. And in the cycle of discovery, her love for the early forms of music grew.

So to be able to study at Yale was exciting for her, not only in itself as it would be for most of us, but also because of Ralph Kirkpatrick who was not only a lecturer there at the time but also a world-famous harpsichordist (considered by some, the best to play in this century), and the university's famous collection of 17th and 18th century musical instruments.

Following her studies at Yale, Preethi returned to Berlin to teach until she was offered a post at Scripts College in California, where she taught for over 20 years.

She is now Prof. Emerita, officially retired "but I'm not really retired, you know?" she laughs, explaining that she still engages with some graduate students. "The thing is, once you learn to play or sing, it's something you can't lose. You're never alone with an instrument, it's your friend for life."

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