My oh my Mumbai!

As the seatbelt light came on and people gradually returned to their seats for the final descent into Mumbai, I have to admit to feeling a little nervous. After the incredibly ordered calm of UAE, I knew Mumbai was going to be almost exactly the opposite, but no matter how many books or films you see, nothing can prepare you for the assault on your senses that is this astonishing city. When you land at Heathrow having approached from the East, you realise that London is actually a fairly small place even when you take into account the huge number of suburbs; it doesn’t take long to fly over. As the plane came down through the clouds the sheer size of the place became apparent, it goes on and on into the distance, a huge sprawling mass of people and buildings. Everybody around me is leaning over to try to get a first glimpse out of the window of our home for the next 2 days. Most people in the orchestra have never been to India before and there are certainly no members left from the last time the LSO came here in 1964. As we approach the airport, one of the infamous slums appears below us. There is an audible gasp at the size and intensity of the settlement; we’ve all seen the film, but somehow, great film though it is, it doesn’t prepare you for the reality, and that is just from the air. We are so low I can see kids on a tin roof waving up at the plane, smiling. I find myself smiling and waving back though they couldn’t possibly see me. I think to myself that this is going to be a trip like no other.

The first morning, a group of us are playing in a wind quintet at venues in the city for two of our sponsors on this tour. First stop is the Vodafone HQ where we are playing in the cafe for all of the staff. But, oh the traffic! The noise of the horns never stops like the bleating of sheep in a field. Nobody seems to get annoyed though and despite the way it may look, it doesn’t seem that chaotic, just organised in a very idiosyncratic way. Despite not knowing which direction a vehicle is going to come at me from, I feel less in danger of being run over than in the city of London. However, for some reason we have been given a full size coach (not a couch) despite the fact that there are only 5 of us. We are extremely on time for the recital and enter a cafe which is full to the brim of young, cool looking staff and their MD Martin, who turns out to be Dutch – Joost was happy! Before we know it we are on stage being introduced. The guy with the mic is very excited and gave us the best introduction I have ever heard.

“Good morning everyone and welcome to the best day ever at work. I would like to start by reading you my favourite quotation in honour of this occasion. It is from Oklahoma. Oh what beautiful morning, oh what a wonderful day. I’ve got a wonderful feeling, as the London Symphony Orchestra has come to play!”

I was genuinely touched. Many of the staff didn’t know what our instruments were, so we explained and demonstrated whilst they all filmed on their phones (it’s probably on YouTube already!) Afterwards we were presented with some some books about old Bombay and all of us were really bowled over by the tremendous welcome they gave us. However we couldn’t stay long as we were back on the tour bus into another traffic jam on the way to Standard Chartered Private Bank for our next engagement – and lunch. Their offices are in a building from the Victorian era which is now a heritage building, and it turns out, has quite a nice acoustic. They very kindly gave us lunch and again, I can’t recall people being so glad to see us. We had temporarily ousted a few people from their office so that we could play. It had a wooden floor and sounded pretty good until we reached the end of some of the pieces and held the last chord which turned out to be the same note as all of the taxi horns outside. Everybody saw the funny side. As a reward we were given dessert which we finished fairly rapidly as we had to go and rehearse for the evening concert.

It was a repeat of the Jarvi show from two nights earlier in the National Centre of Performing Arts which is a nice hall, but very loud indeed. It’s not always easy to tell if people are enjoying a concert from the stage, everybody reacts differently in different countries. But there was no mistaking the buzz in Mumbai, I think just the sight of nearly 100 western players in evening dress coming onto the stage was excitement enough, but when West Side Story started I think they didn’t quite know what had hit them! I could see the front few rows from where I sat, and I don’t think any of them stopped smiling all through the concert. At the interval, I bumped into some of the people I had met at the recitals. They were bursting with excitement and asked me question after question about what instruments where which. What does the conductor actually do? How do you know what to play? Is it usual for the conductor not to be the composer as well?

All very interesting questions I simply didn’t have time to answer in the interval! At the end of the show we gave an encore of the Mambo from West Side – but with a difference. If you know the piece, there are two moments where the orchestra has to shout Mambo! Most orchestras I know shout out a variety of swearwords at this point. It’s childish I know but we are only human; obviously it only works with two syllable swear words – I’ll leave it to your imagination. Anyway, quite unprompted, we all shouted Mumbai! It of course brought the house down. We should possibly think about doing it in every city, although Valery might have a problem in St Petersburg.

After the show we were invited up to the house of the Deputy High Commisioner, Peter Beckingham and his wife. I often find this sort of thing a bit difficult, moving in such high circles, but on this occasion you couldn’t have asked for a nicer couple of people. I mean it as a compliment when I say that they were very normal, and welcomed us and many guests into their home. I was immediately given an extremely large glass of whisky and spent a fabulous evening in their company. We even ended up talking about blogs as Peter is going to be writing one from India starting later on in the year. I think we should all start reading it!

Today, our second and last day began with a rehearsal and another wind quintet recital for the Oberoi Hotels and Resorts group. It was on the top floor of our hotel, the Trident and we had the most stunning view of the bay and beyond, it was quite hard to concentrate on the music! Afterwards, again we were fed and watered and met some lovely people who I could have talked to all day. However, everyone had told me to go out and walk around to experience the city and so far I had been too busy working. I changed and met some friends in the lobby and we jumped in a cab and were off.

I don’t have words to express what a wonderful afternoon I have just had. My mind is still processing all of the things I’ve seen, the people I’ve talked to and the colour. Mumbai seems to run on its own time, everything gets done when it gets done. For a place which has millions of people in it all going about their daily business, it has a remarkably relaxed feel about it. Everywhere we go people smile and chat. We walked across the Oval park where I tried to count the number of cricket games going on and lost track as they all merged in one. Some people were playing in two games at once! I threw a ball back a few times as they came flying towards us, but declined the offer to join in, they look too good. The Gateway is a huge mass of people just walking and talking, some going on boats out to the islands, other just sitting around in the scorching heat and humidity talking to friends. I realised I was walking around with a smile on my face too and unlike at home I was in no rush to get anywhere, it was like the city was casting a spell on me. I like it. As we walked near the area around Victoria Station it felt a lot like the area around the museums in South Ken as the buildings are virtually identical. As we pause in the Horniman gardens which is filled with palms and flowers which I’ve only seen in the Wisley greenhouse, a man asks if we need a tour guide. We decline, but he stays for a chat and tells us stuff about his city which he is obviously proud of anyway. As you all know, we have travelled to many places around the world, many of them very different to home, but Mumbai is something else. I can’t put my finger on it, but I want to stay longer, I want to come back and explore more. I’ve never felt so at home in a strange place. Someone said to me that they think its because of the style of architecture – but I don’t feel like this in Boston. For me its the colour and warmth of the people I’ve met who have made this trip for me. This city for me is not defined by the heritage buildings, the old colonial traditions, the tiny taxis or the slums. For me, to paraphrase the bard, the city is the people, and what great people they are.

About LSO

The London Symphony Orchestra is one of the world's top orchestras. Our home is at the Barbican Centre in the City of London where we play over 80 concerts every year, but we also spend quite a bit of time out on the road, touring all over the world. Recently we have toured to Germany, France, Russia, New York, Japan, Holland, Hungary, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland and Lithuania; and coming up this year are China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Japan, Hong Kong, Spain, Portugal, Florida, Romania and a return visit to New York, where we are resident at the Lincoln Center.
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11 Responses to My oh my Mumbai!

  1. Babu Syed says:

    cud have commented on Indian music?

  2. Cara Chapman says:

    What a fabulous blog! Despite being friends with a member of the orchestra who sits pretty close to Gareth (usually next to him!), I’ve only just started reading these.

    Mumbai sounds fascinating and the way you’ve described it just makes me want to go. Sadly I seem to have an ever expanding list of places to visit, so it’ll have to join the queue, but I think it just went up a few places!

    Keep up the good work!

  3. Maija says:

    If you ever get bored with the orchestra, you could take up a career in advertising or travel writing! I just added Mumbai to my list of “places I need to go at some point in my life”.

  4. Malcolm says:

    Gareth…thank you so much for describing our city so beautifully. It was indeed a real pleasure to read all of what you wrote…Thank you for coming to Mumbai to play for us…and I ardently hope you will include our city in all of your future tours. The concerts, both of them, were remarkable and indeed virtuostic! A very big congratulations to all of you. OK….about me…well i sing in the tenor line for one the premier choral groups in India…The Paranjoti chorus…under the baton of Mrs Coomi Wadia. We had sung the choral part in Beethoven’s 9th last September with the Symphony Orchestra of India..and are nowl training for a tentative tour to Moscow…scheduled for June this year. So Gareth, do let me know when you’re coming to Mumbai again…It would be my honor to take you and your friends around my city and show you much more. Here’s wishing you and the LSO all the very best for the future!

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  6. LSO says:

    Thanks for your comment Malcolm. We had a great time and if we come back I shall give you a bell.

  7. LSO says:

    Thanks very much! Don’t think I’ll get bored with the orchestra though, do you?

  8. LSO says:

    It’s brilliant.

  9. Navneeth says:

    Lucky Bombay, it gets to host the famous orchestras all the time. (Last year, the Viennese were there.) You ought to come to Chennai, my home-city, and experience the rest of India. (But avoid April/May, though — it gets terribly hot here.)

  10. Mridula says:

    I attended both Bombay concerts ten days ago and it’s still hard to put my emotions to words. The best I can come up with is that it was like hearing real music for the first time. I was familiar with most of the pieces played, so there really shouldn’t have been any novelty as such, but I felt it nonetheless. There was the same breathless emotional reactions of hearing them for the first time, along with a more mature understanding of the piece and how it would develop. And words definitely do no justice to the actual emotions. It was like nothing I have experienced before. I can’t wait to hear the LSO again!

    I’m glad you liked Bombay so much. It’s a beautiful city, my favourite. You’ve identified what lots of people haven’t. Bombay is so much more than money and economics. It’s the people that make it what it is. When you return (and do come back soon!), you must see more. Send a mail. We’d be happy to show you around.

  11. Suzie says:

    What a pity the orchestra did not manage to perform anything by either of two extremely good British-based classical composers of Indian origin: Param Vir and Naresh Sohal. In 1987, Sohal was awarded a Padma Shree (Order of the Lotus) for his services to western classical music, and if you check Wikipaedia or his website, you’ll see he’s just made it to seventy. Both composers have based work on the insights and themes generated by Indian philosophy and Mumbai audiences would have been deeply appreciative of, not to say moved by, this depth and quality. Contemporary ‘Indian music’ these days is more than Bollywood, banghra and raags, you know.

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