CHENNAI: All MS Subbalakshmi asked me when I invited her to light the lamp and inaugurate the first concert of the Lakshminarayana Global Music Festival in 1992 was, Naanga vera yenna pannanum? (What else should we do?) I asked her to sing obviously! It’s been 25 years now and we conduct this festival annually in the memory of my father, who taught music apart from playing the violin. We have received a lot of love and support for this festival from musicians across the world,” says the violin maestro, world music composer and Padma Bhushan awardee (2001) L Subramaniam.
“My father is my guiding light. He was ahead of his times and would always speak of placing Indian music on a world stage like Lincoln Centre or Sydney Opera House. I’m glad he saw me perform with Yehudi Menuhin at the UN before he passed away. That was when I didn’t touch the violin for the longest time,”he recalls.
Subramaniam is a grandfather now but his most cherished memory of both music and family comes from his childhood spent with his father and his growing-up years, when he studied in PS High School, Mylapore, and graduated from Loyola College and then the Madras Medical College. His late wife Viji, who was also an acclaimed musician, encouraged him to start this music festival in the name of his father who as he proclaims was “Our hero! I wanted to be like him, hold the violin like he used to and enthrall audiences!”
Chennai will witness a mélange of musicians perform with L Subramaniam at the Music
Academy, as this festival opens this evening. “We have travelled across the globe with this festival as this is something my father would have wanted me to do.”
Subramaniam’s grand-daughter apparently asked him if she could sing with him in this concert. “We are a family of musicians anyway (his two sons and daughter have their own bands) and no, our dining table conversations is not always about music,” says this prolific violinist-composer, who takes over from his father, who according to him was responsible for making an ‘accompaniment’ music instrument like the violin into a ‘solo performing art’. Excerpts follow....
How has your background in science helped you in composing music?
Well, my education certainly helps me analyse and understand meter and idiom as I also have a Masters in Western Music. When I write music for an oboe, I must also know at which point the oboe sounds most beautiful and what notes can possibly spring from it. Without knowing the science behind music, one can’t compose notes for other musicians to play. I create scientifically but when it comes to execution, it has to come from the heart. Emotionally and spiritually what we play has to connect to you. So my music is a blend of both worlds.
Is there a difference when you play with other performers and your family?
My father and brother (late Vaidyanathan) used to play together. With my family, we try and break boundaries as much as possible. For instance, when Kavitha (playback singer and wife) sang the Meera Bhajan, we performed it with an orchestra — like a symphony. I put in just a guest appearance for my sons and daughters (laughs), as they have their own bands. They adapt some of the pieces I’ve written. With other musicians, my compositions are written to suit their virtuosity. I try and give them something they have not done before. I understand their comfort zone and then co-create something different from it.
You have played in almost all the best music halls around the world. Which are the ones you like?
I enjoy playing at Royal Albert Hall in London and the Sydney Opera House. More recent spaces would be the National Centre for Performing Arts, Beijing, Esplanade in Singapore and the Paris Philharmonic where I was asked to play for the opening week. These halls are best suited for orchestra and acoustics. Chicago has the best open-air space called the Millennium Park and the sound design is such that even if you’re in the last row, you can hear every note! The stage there is set to optimum temperature for performers, irrespective of whether it is shines or snows. I wish we had such pure music halls in India. What we have instead are all-in-one halls for music, dance, drama, events, and even for speeches!
You started playing the violin when you were six – you’re pushing 70 now. How do you explain your relationship with music?
I’m just a ‘zero’ without my violin! It has seen my ups and downs and has been there right through, even in my worst possible phase in life. I have a conversation with my violin everyday (smiles)! When I’m upset, instead of talking about it to some other person, I just play my violin. Sometimes I travel vast distances and still have to rush to the venue to do sound check and maybe even perform on an empty stomach but the moment I pick up my violin, the sound takes over my senses. It is my inner voice, my music, my peace! It keeps me going.