Swans without their song

Robert Fogel, the Nobel Prize-winning economic historian, had once made a remark to a few of his colleagues which I, an inconsequential graduate student, had overheard. It was not economics that Fogel had discussed. Instead, he explained why he was disinclined to attend live symphony orchestra. The problem with these, he observed, was that they left no room for encores, however much one might wish to listen to a favourite tune a second time.

By Dipankar Dasgupta
  • Published 17.05.18
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Robert Fogel, the Nobel Prize-winning economic historian, had once made a remark to a few of his colleagues which I, an inconsequential graduate student, had overheard. It was not economics that Fogel had discussed. Instead, he explained why he was disinclined to attend live symphony orchestra. The problem with these, he observed, was that they left no room for encores, however much one might wish to listen to a favourite tune a second time. 

Fogel, therefore, preferred to hear his music on a record player. One could always lift the stylus, he said, and move it back to enjoy repeatedly the parts that had caught one’s fancy. Being music-wise non-professional, he was not entirely correct, though, in believing that live performances precluded encores. Legend has it that at the première of Beethoven’s 7th symphony in Vienna, the second movement, Allegretto, turned out to be so captivating that it was encored in response to public demand. Such encores, of course, are exceptions that prove the general point that the professor had made. The conductor of a philharmonic orchestra is unlikely to regale the audience by repeating portions of a just concluded performance.

It was the pre-internet age when Fogel was speaking. With the arrival of the internet, sites such as YouTube have lent additional relevance to his viewpoint. Audio-visual repetition of a performance, part or whole, can occur now in cosy corners of sitting rooms. 

One wonders, though, how the likes of Fogel might react if they ended up attending a live performance, but were treated to a recording alone of the musical score, with no sign whatsoever of the performing musicians. Replay of the recording may well not be ruled out under the assumed circumstances, but one does not purchase tickets to be so favoured. A live musical opera with missing artistes is a contradiction in terms and the contradiction travesty if it is a ballet one is watching that is not only unaccompanied by live orchestra, but is accompanied instead by the blinking lights of monstrous electronic equipment occupying the greater part of a front corner of the auditorium, with electricians in casual working clothes distracting the audience. Add to this large and dirty green trunks stacked on top of one another in the first wing, stage right, and a stage hand in a pair of American rose-coloured trousers and a black tee shirt standing in the second in full view of a good part of the audience. Fogel had not been exposed to this horror, but Calcutta was, when the Royal Russian Ballet, advertising itself as a group devoted ‘to saving and promoting the best traditions of Russian classical ballet around the world’, performed Tchaikovsky’s immortal composition, Swan Lake, in Nazrul Mancha. 

Fortunately however, the classical Russian tradition has been lovingly preserved by YouTube in its archives. Among other wonders, a performance of Swan Lake by the Bolshoi Ballet in 1989 can be easily accessed there. As one watches it, one cannot help wondering if the RRB would have been allowed to present in London, Moscow or New York what it did in Calcutta. 

In all fairness though, a travelling ballet group finds it super-expensive to have orchestra hands accompany it and that may well be the reason why the live orchestra was missing. However, by Indian standards at least, the tickets were steeply priced too. Not as steep perhaps as the rupee equivalent of the dollar price in New York, but steep they were nonetheless, steep enough to spare the audience the grotesque sight of an Odette (in pristine white) or an Odile (in gorgeous black) flanked by an elegantly clad Siegfried on the left and a man in crumpled red pants and black tees on the right. 

Anna Pavlova or Isadora Duncan they were not expected to be. Yet the dancers did not exactly disappoint, but the audience needed to exercise supreme self-control to ignore the technicians, the uncouth boxes, stage hands in red and hairpin adjusting ballerinas in the wings.

India in general and Calcutta in particular have their own classical traditions. No Bharatnatyam dancer performs without instrumentalists occupying a part of the stage. Utpal Dutt’s Tiner Talowar had a Shakespearean stage within the stage with instrumentalists sitting on the main stage to re-enact classical Bengali drama. Calcutta’s proscenium theatre has a long history that actors like Girish Ghosh, Sisir Bhaduri, Sambhu Mitra, Utpal Dutt and many others, including a somewhat unappreciated Kamal Majumdar, had enriched. Even beginners here rarely violate the basic rules of stage discipline. 

The RRB plans to return with other items in its repertoire. Going back to Fogel, watching YouTube instead should be a more rewarding experience.

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