Festive Fare

There will be double the revelry at the Artie’s Festival this month, when the chamber music event lends its unique brand of mirth and light-heartedness to the NCPA’s joyous golden jubilee celebrations. We speak to Artie’s founder Gauthier Herrmann to find out more. By Beverly Pereira

The Artie’s Festival has become a highly anticipated event on the NCPA calendar. Now in its 12th year, the biannual festival of chamber music continues to delight audiences, both new and old. Since the very first edition in March 2008, the Artie’s soloists have come to be loved for their easygoing approach to masterful and fresh presentations of familiar fare. At the 24th edition later this month, the celebratory mood is expected to be that much more palpable, and with good reason too.

A musical adventure

As always, the programming for the Artie’s Festival – a collaboration between French cellist and Artie’s founder Gauthier Herrmann and the NCPA – is carried out in tandem with the NCPA. “Programmes are chosen in very close partnership with my dear friend Khushroo N. Suntook. We kept in mind the fact that the NCPA was celebrating its 50th anniversary,” says Herrmann, who regularly visits the country not just for the festival across Indian cities, but also for outreach programmes. Months prior to this, the two had selected as many as 38 pieces before settling for just 18.

Bringing with it an air of festivity, the programme for the evening will be rich with salutes to some of the greatest opera arias in the European classical repertoire, with a nod to Viennese and gypsy traditions. Striking pieces by composers like Rossini, Verdi, Bellini, Dvořák, Kreisler, Weill, Mascagni, Tchaikovsky and Monti will set the energetic pace of the evening. There will be arias like ‘Moon’ from Dvořák’s ninth opera Rusalka, ‘Casta diva’ from Bellini’s Norma, and ‘E Strano’ from Verdi’s La Traviata.

“It’s always a great pleasure to think about what and who we can bring in terms of novelty. For this edition, we thought about giving our beloved Mumbai audience a special and festive programme that includes two singers and a very large repertoire, from baroque music to ‘chanson française’ like Edith Piaf,” he says, adding that if he were to offer a teaser, he would pick Saint-Saëns: ‘Mon Coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’, Dvořák: Rusalka, Monteverdi: ‘Pur ti miro’, Piaf: ‘La vie en Rose’, and Rossini: Ouverture – ‘La Gazza Ladra’.

A familiar feel

Chamber music has its roots in the palaces and courts of the 17th century. This form of classical music was written for a small group of instruments and, thus, for small ensembles. Today, we have collectives like Artie’s that play bespoke concerts on stages and in living rooms, reminiscent of the very intimate setting of erstwhile times.

Barring Herrmann, the configuration for the Artie’s teams is never set in stone. The collective is an ever-changing one, comprising musicians who otherwise play on some of the biggest European stages. At the Artie’s Festival, there have been times when the musicians have played as a small ensemble of quintets; in other editions, they have opted for a larger format of ten to 15 musicians who take the stage as the Artie’s Chamber Orchestra.

This time around, the Artie’s will comprise a collective of six soloists – including cellist Herrmann – who are all individually at the top of their game. There will be pianist Samuel Parent, a stellar musician who is no stranger to the festival or to Herrmann himself. Herrmann has been playing with Parent for over two decades and the two enjoy a high level of familiarity. They had studied together at the Conservatoire de Paris and even went on to win several international chamber music competitions in Florence and Paris, among other cities.

The NCPA audience will also find a familiar face and recognisable sound in mezzo-soprano Yete Queiroz and violinist Hugues Borsarello. It will be the first visit to India for Pierre Cussac, who plays the accordion, and for soprano Fabienne Conrad too; both are exceptional musicians in their own right and are very much looking forward to their first trip to India.

Despite the fact that this specific ensemble will be on stage together for the very first time in India, some of them already know each other. “As is always the case with Artie’s, there will be a mix of various musicians coming in from various universes. The two singers are very used to singing together and four of the musicians are accustomed to playing together as well,” says Herrmann, who feels proud about the artistic selection.

Unlike previous editions, the Artie’s Festival this year will not add strings from the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI). Instead, they will use special instruments for a few pieces. “The accordion is always a special instrument as we use it in different ways. It’s usual to have an accordion in the ‘chanson francaise’, particularly for Piaf and Aznavour. But the arrangements for a few pieces will also use the combination of piano and accordion to create the feeling of an orchestra. On top of that, we will add violin and cello to create a very special atmosphere,” explains Herrmann, who adds that the powerful voices of the two singers will enable the rest of the ensemble to play to the fullest.

A band of travellers

The Artie’s team travels a lot. Since their first recital in India, they have taken the joy and spontaneity of chamber music to the far reaches of the world, from Bahrain to Beijing. Within India itself, the Artie’s soloists have performed in many cities besides Mumbai, like Delhi, Neemrana, Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Pune, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Chennai, Goa, Kumarakom and Udaipur. Even once the festival concludes, the teams try to discover new places. “Sometimes, I don’t even tell them anything. We just go to the airport or train station and I bring them to a special place for a few days. We’ve been to Dungarpur, Ajanta and Ellora in Aurangabad and to the temples in Tamil Nadu. We’ve also been to Gujarat several times as it’s my favourite state in India.”

The Artie’s Project will soon embark on a world tour starting in 2021. The members will travel to 60 cities across 20 countries to perform at 80 concerts every year. The ‘Around the World in 80 Concerts’ tour will conclude after 10 years, says Herrmann, who admits that travel is an important part of the team’s work.

Coming back full circle, Herrmann tells us that the NCPA is special to him for many reasons. “Firstly, the Artie’s project was created there and the NCPA is our main and oldest partner worldwide. Can you imagine? Even in France, we don’t have such a faithful partner. We are very used to playing in India, especially in Mumbai, where we know our audience, and vice versa. When people take their seats, they know what to expect. It is always joyful and energetic. We try to make our concerts lively so that everyone in the audience, whether a beginner or a regular, feels comfortable listening to the music. I think even kids and teenagers will feel comfortable enough,” he says.

Any loyal fan of the festival looks forward to its return twice a year, in March and in November. But, unlike previous editions, the festival will take place a month later in December this year. Herrmann says, “For the very first time, it is one month later and I feel like there is a big hole in my calendar. I feel like my entire body needs to be back ‘home’ and play at the NCPA. It has been a long wait since the last edition in March this year. I think I am addicted to the NCPA and India. And I wouldn’t want to heal that.”

The Artie’s Festival will be presented on 18th December at the Tata Theatre.

This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the December 2019 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.