By Annie Juliana Francis Ismail
The last time my boyfriend, now husband, Yohan, and I attended a classical music event in Colombo was in 2019 – a lifetime ago, when the world was a vastly different place. There was no fuel crisis then, but we enjoyed holding hands and walking long distances, including to and from evenings of heavenly music at the Lionel Wendt, Ladies’ College Auditorium, or a similar venue.
We preferred the opportunity to discuss things that interested us while walking, rather than catching one of the hundreds of passing tuks that were all convinced we were in dire need of their services. And, notably, we were unencumbered by a piece of fabric or plastic covering half our faces in an attempt to prevent catching a debilitating infectious disease.
Three years later, last Sunday (26 June), we found ourselves nursing a familiar excitement, as we put on our walking shoes and grabbed fresh face masks off a half-empty box. We were more than ready for an evening of respite from the constant worry and stress of navigating our country’s worst economic crisis, after having seemingly survived a global pandemic.
This time around though, our walk to the venue of the evening’s musical event – the Goethe-Institut Hall – was not solely by choice. We walked along eerily empty highways, past unmoving, long lines of tuks and other vehicles queued for fuel, where the ever-enterprising tuk drivers now looked defeated and forlorn, painting a dismal picture of our bustling capital.
At the Goethe-Institut Hall, we joined a small gathering of people to indulge in an evening of classical music aptly named “June Distractions” organised by The Chamber Music Society of Colombo (CMSC). There was a slight change in the order of the programme, and the first performance of the evening introduced us to the exquisitely sweet sound of the piccolo trumpet – smallest of the trumpet family – through the works of a lesser-known composer, George P. Telemann, who is also referred to as “a forgotten friend of Bach and Handel”. Of Telemann’s hundreds of works, we were treated to eight of his 12 Marches héroiques “Heldenmusik”, TWV 50:31-42.
As explained by CMSC Concertmaster Lakshman Joseph-de Saram (playing first violin), each of these eight processionals and marches were likely composed for the welcoming of a royal delegation in an intimate setting; and the piccolo trumpet, played skilfully by Naveen Fernando, along with the accompanying string quintet transported us back in time to the graceful courtyard in the dwelling of a 17th Century European monarch. The joyful banter between the first violin – at times playing the role of second trumpet – and the piccolo trumpet (playing first trumpet) artfully exhibited a seamless and well-balanced pairing between trumpets and strings in this collaboration.
For the next part of the evening’s programme, we shifted a few decades forward in time, to the works of a 16-year-old Mozart, in Divertimento in B-flat major, K.137/125b, which, according to Joseph-de Saram, came about as a “fun” exercise for the orchestra in the midst of preparations for Mozart’s opera Lucio Silla in Milan, Italy.
As novel and delightful as the sounds of the piccolo trumpet were, being an enthusiast of the stringed instruments, I was eager to hear their repartee and conspiring, in work written specifically for them – in this instance for two violins, a viola, cello, and, additionally, a contrabass. And in the three movements of Mozart’s Divertimento in B-flat major, we got to experience a range of character and flair in each of the instruments as Mozart’s work bore testament to his typical, genius self.
The last part of the programme brought us forward by approximately a century, to the works of Mendelssohn when he was just 10 years old, in Sinfonia for String Quintet No. 7 in D Minor, MWV N 7, which, curiously, was accompanied by a disclaimer to the audience from the concertmaster: Owing to the complexity of the composition of this 10-year-old prodigy, we, the audience, warned Joseph-de Saram, could be subjected to the musicians calling out bar numbers or voicing beat patterns to keep each other from going off the rails.
This forewarning made us all the more sit on the edges of our seats as the musicians took a deliberately longer time to tune their instruments, tighten their bows, and ready themselves for Mendelsohhn’s four-part creation. And from the very first resounding note, the atmosphere in the hall changed drastically. The skilful playing of the instrumentalists and their unique interpretation of the brilliant composition drew us all in, and each of us in the audience followed every note and rest with bated breath.
As suggested in its title, the first movement, Allegro, was extremely fast-paced and intense, but also not without long, overlapping notes for the higher-pitched violins, with more movement for the lower-pitched instruments, and vice versa, that we could tell would probably confuse a lesser musician.
I really enjoyed the second movement, Andante amorevole, which started with just the first and second violins in a warm and tender melody that reminded me of a comforting place, like home, which was joined soon after by the viola and then the cello and eventually by the contrabass, each adding colour to the expanding harmony.
The third movement, Menuetto, for whatever reason, made me think of a countryside tavern, with news bearers bursting into the establishment at regular intervals, each with their own spin to some highly debated development in a normally quiet and sleepy village. Some bits of information were naturally more positive than others, as so it happens in these kinds of situations. But finally, after much deliberation, the villagers find a consensus regarding the matter, and peace and general camaraderie is once again restored by the end of the piece in a joyous, resonant chord.
In the final movement, Allegro molto, the intensity of the first movement is replicated tenfold. Once again we found ourselves at the edges of our seats, at one with the music and its accomplished players. And as the final few notes filled the hall in a bunch of furious quavers and then longer-lasting crotchet notes and rests, all of us broke into resounding applause.
As I joined in the ovation, I couldn’t help but marvel at the legacy of men and women we still so enthusiastically celebrate and derive incredible joy from centuries later, and wondered at the parts we each play in building a legacy for our future generations. It was certainly a sobering thought, especially in the context of our country’s rueful fate, but, for now, Telemann, Mozart, and Mendelssohn, through the masterful playing by the members of the CMSC had lifted my spirits beyond the reach of the doom and gloom that awaited outside the gates of the Goethe-Institut.
And so I sanitised my hands and grabbed Yohan’s, in gleeful anticipation of reliving the one-and-a-half hours of enchanting music through our conversations as we retraced our steps home.