ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, February 18, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 38

A journey of passion and commitment

The Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka celebrates 50 years of making music

By Esther Williams

The Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka that has been bringing quality concerto music to lovers of western classical music celebrates 50 years this year. It has been an eventful journey for the players, their motivation chiefly their passion and commitment to playing classical music.

The curtain raiser to their 50th Golden Jubilee season will feature Sri Lankan born cellist Rohan De Saram as guest artist at their concert on February 25th at the Ananda College’s Kularatne Hall at 7.00 pm. The concert conducted by Ajit Abeysekera will include Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococco Theme, Op.22; Beethoven: Symphony No.3 in E flat ‘Eroica’ Op.55; and Weber: Overture to ‘Oberon.’

Looking back at decades of nurturing Sri Lankan talent, one of its three current conductors, clarinettist Ajit Abeysekera speaks of its beginnings. In 1930 three Danish musicians, the Wagn brothers started an orchestra while also teaching violin to those interested. However, it was only in 1958 that the orchestra received the official title of the Symphony Orchestra of Ceylon, through the efforts of the Western Music panel of the Arts Council. They had their first concert then, conducted by Hussain Mohammed, featuring Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto with their soloist, the acclaimed pianist Ms. Malini Jayasinghe.

Professor Earle De Fonseka took over as the conductor in 1969, continuing until his demise in 2000. Some of the country’s best known classical musicians performed with the late maestro. “The orchestra is what it is today because of him,” Abeysekera says.
Having joined the orchestra in 1969, Abeysekera, also a Professor of Chemistry at the Sri Jayawardanapura University recalls some of the outstanding concerts the orchestra has participated in as well as the challenges they have faced. “Many of the well known Sri Lankan classical music artists have made their first big public appearance while performing with the orchestra,” he says, listing Tharanga Goonetilleke (soprano), Gayathri Pieris (soprano) and Rohan De Silva (pianist) amongst others.

The orchestra was also fortunate to have had several well known foreign soloists performing with them. Leader of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Leon Spierer and world famous clarinettist Gervase De Peyer are among them. Further, to encourage local composers, the orchestra has many a time performed works by Sarath Fernando, Anil Mihiripenna, Lalanath De Silva and Harsha Makalanda to name a few.

Occasionally foreign guest conductors were invited, bringing with them exposure to foreign standards - leading to better playing standards. “Our emphasis has always been on nurturing and encouraging young talent,” says the conductor. Hence every year there has been a young soloist concert featuring young artists. They also hold biennial concerto competitions for young musicians.

Their journey has not been without challenges, Abeysekera states. At times they were short of players of wind instruments. At other times they had to get players for heavy brass instruments from the forces. The rising cost of instruments and accessories did not help. Notably, for most of the players who at some point have had foreign training it is not done as a profession but for their love and commitment to music.

Continuity of players who often go abroad to work or get married has been an issue in addition to finances. Currently they are dependent on a few corporate sponsors who support the group for its valuable contribution to culture in the absence of support from the Arts Council.

The orchestra it appears depends now as then, on corporate sponsorship and support from lovers of western music, who have formed their loyal audience base. The introduction of the Associate Membership scheme whereby members pay in advance for a season has worked well, he says, guaranteeing an income as well as an appreciative audience.

There were changes too. While in the first few decades, the outfit was a player managed orchestra, in 1991 a Board of Governors was created comprising representatives of the corporate sector and other patrons who have taken over responsibilities related to management, funding and publicity while the Players Committee concentrates on aspects of making music.

Incorporated in its new structure was the appointment of three conductors since 2002. Ajit Abeysekera (clarinettist), Ananda Dabare (violinist) and Manilal Weerakoon (French horn) are the current conductors. During the last few years they have had six or seven concerts each year unlike the normal four.

Interestingly, most of the musicians in the orchestra aren self-taught as there aren’t sufficient teachers according to the conductor. Teaching music as a livelihood apparently leaves much to be desired and hence one cannot expect anyone to do so, on a full time professional basis. “The orchestra is a labour of love and we need to compromise on other demands,” the conductor remarks, expressing the need for music academy to train musicians and provide other facilities.

One thing is certain – that the orchestra has grown tremendously. “The technical level has definitely risen,” Abeysekera affirms. It is not surprising since they have in the team the likes of violinist Dabare and cellist Dushy Perera. Besides, over the last few years the orchestra has been consistently attempting more ambitious and complex works. “Today we play with ease works that we would have found very difficult 20 years ago,” the conductor says.

The 55-member orchestra, the only one of its kind in the country is now looking for opportunities to perform in other countries of the region. They are the only orchestra in the SAARC region who perform regular concerts and rehearse all year round. “Our love for orchestra has kept us together, as a valuable addition to the cultural life and diversity of the country.”

The conductor thinks that young people need to be given opportunities to appreciate classical music, easier said than done with all local music channels featuring pop music predominantly.

Tickets priced at Rs. 1000, 750, 500, 300 and 100 are available at Titus Stores, Liberty Plaza and SOSL office. Phone: 2501209.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.