Master keyboard artist Malini Jayasinghe-Peris cut a slim, dignified figure that distant evening, when she performed with the Symphony Orchestra of Ceylon nearly half a century ago. She was then in her mid-thirties. She was draped in a striking black saree with a broad scarlet border and her black hair gleamed like the surface of a new Steinway grand, her hands alighting on the keys and lifting off in light, graceful gestures. The memory of that concert is very clear.
This was the acclaimed young Ceylonese musician who had made headlines here and gone on to make a name in Europe, competing among some of the world's most promising pianists of the time. Anyone in the country who talked about serious music was talking about Malini Jayasinghe-Peris, the exceptionally gifted pianist with the resonant double-barrel surname. Like cellist Rohan de Saram, she would put Ceylon on the classical music map.
At that concert she was the soloist in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, and that was the first time we heard her (she had played the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto with the orchestra a couple of years earlier, at the orchestra's debut, but in 1958 we were much too young to be taken to concerts).
The second time we heard Malini Jaya-singhe-Peris, in person, was at last weekend’s chamber and solo recital, held at the Goethe-Institut Colombo.
The pianist cuts the same graceful, dignified stage presence she did five decades earlier, but with a minor difference – this time the effect is topped with a distinguished head of silver hair. The pianist’s profile, as she takes her place at the piano, is familiar.
We had seen this same profile in a photograph on the cover of a long-playing record that had come out in the mid-Sixties. The appearance of the US-made record was the other special occasion our attention was drawn to the Sri Lankan musician, in the half-century interval between the two Malini Jayasinghe-Peris concerts.
(The pianist has spent the greater part of her life outside Sri Lanka, mostly in the US, raising a family, teaching, and giving concerts around the world. She has graced concert halls in America, Canada, Britain, Europe, Israel, Russia, China, Australia, India. In fact, to many here, Mrs. Jaya-singhe-Peris’ concert appearances in the country of her birth may seem too few and far between.)
The long-playing record was an album of works by Debussy, Ravel and de Falla. It was the first time a Ceylonese classical artist had collaborated with a leading international recording label, a cause for local celebration. Radio Ceylon announced a special broadcast of the complete album.
The performance sparkled, crackled, exploded. The fierce, stamping, hot rhythms of twentieth-century Spanish music alternated with the strange, misty-aqueous, nocturnal-supernatural worlds of the French Impress-onists. Everything dazzled. One work, Ravel’s triptych Gaspard de la Nuit, is acknowledged as the most technically demanding work written for the piano ever. The notes danced, rippled and tripped off the pianist’s fingertips. “Brilliant” was the general verdict among those sitting by their radios that night.
“Brilliant” is a word Malini Jayasinghe-Peris has heard repeatedly over the years in reference to her playing. It is a compliment that might once have flattered her. Not any more.
“When I hear someone say that a recital of mine was brilliant, I think, oh dear, I have failed,” says Mrs. Jayasinghe-Peris. She is reflecting on her life and career as she relaxes on a verandah at the Goethe-Institut, after a rehearsal for her Saturday concert. “I don’t play to prompt comments like ‘brilliant’. I would be much happier if someone said the music had touched them, reached into their soul. The musician should be only a conduit for the composer’s intentions. I have evolved as a musician, I like to think. I might once have wanted to excite audiences with clever keyboard work. That is inevitable in young artists on the make. You play to impress.
“For me, now, music is about conveying what the composer had in his heart, head, soul. His moods, his feelings. Sometimes I feel I accomplish that at a concert, sometimes I feel I haven’t. It’s not something you have control over. It happens or it doesn’t. That’s the magic and wonder of music.”