Notes from a Musical Exile

Isolation appears to have taken an unexpected turn for the Resident Conductor of the SOI, Mikel Toms.

The longer the current lockdown drags on, the more you may have noticed my increasing resemblance to Napoleon. Certainly, once a fortnight as I stand beslippered in my back garden, sawing away at my isolation beard in the reflection of the kitchen window, the likeness is arresting. To be clear, though, it isn’t (to the relief of my Russophone colleagues in the orchestra) that I’ve marched on Moscow yet. Nor have I (perhaps to the disappointment of our Indian audiences but certainly to the relief of my next-door neighbour Hugh) established an anti-British alliance with the Sultan of Mysore.

It’s early days, though.

No, yesterday while watching a video of the most recent performance I gave with the SOI and making notes on what might be improved and what could be done differently next time, I was struck by the image of the Emperor of France in his final years of exile, marooned on the remote island of St Helena, refighting the battle of Leipzig with a box of tin soldiers, working out how he might have turned the whole thing round in his favour.

Later the same day, I found myself scrambling over (to be honest, through) a hedgerow pursued by a herd of cows over whom I was convinced, only minutes earlier, I had developed some sort of cow-whispering hold during the course of the pandemic. Sure enough that evening, I read how Betsy Balcombe, a schoolgirl befriended by Napoleon on St Helena, recalled hiking with him through a meadow of similarly English cows. “One of the cows, the moment she saw our party, put her head down and her tail up, and advanced a pas de charge against the Emperor. He made a skilful and rapid retreat, and leaping nimbly over a wall, placed that rampart between himself and the enemy.”

It is all, I think we can agree, uncanny.

On reflection, I feel that what Napoleon really needed on his breezy South Atlantic outcrop was a Zoom account. Just this morning, from my breezy North Atlantic outcrop, I spoke with my NCPA colleagues across three continents and we refined, without recourse to tin soldiers, our strategy for concerts, recordings and touring over the coming weeks and months. I wonder if Napoleon’s stay on St Helena would have been quite so final had he adequately addressed his video conferencing requirements.

It could be, however, that I’ve been looking at the wrong island. St Helena was Napoleon’s second exile. His first was to the Mediterranean island of Elba where he was kept under guard for just under a year. He then absconded to France where he re-crowned himself Emperor and generally wreaked havoc for a few more months until he was definitively dispatched to the other side of the planet.

Of course, it’s not up to me to characterise my return to Mumbai as a wreaking of musical havoc. Modesty requires I leave that distinction to others. All I will say is that I’m very much looking forward to seeing you once again in India and I am delighted that each passing day is one day closer.

This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the May 2021 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.