West Bengal Tour December 2016: Soprano Susan Williams and Pianist Jennifer Heemstra

American Soprano and Assistant Professor of Voice at The University of Alabama, Susan Williams, made her second trip to Kolkata, India to perform a series of concerts with pianist Jennifer Heemstra, founder of Kolkata Classics.

On one of my first nights in Kolkata, we were invited to a private residence to enjoy a concert featuring the Indian classical instrument, the rudra veena. This was my first time to see a musician play the rudra veena and it was a true pleasure. For those not familiar with this instrument, it is a stringed instrument that is played from a seated position and produces hauntingly beautiful and soothing tones.

Our first performance was at the German Consulate’s Christmas Bazaar in association with the Kolkata International Women’s Club (KWIC). It was a little bizarre for me to perform Christmas music amidst palm trees and mild temperatures. Typically, in the States we associate Christmas with cold weather and snow. The concert was informal and we performed pieces ranging from a classical arrangement of “O Holy Night,” to a jazzy arrangement of “What Child Is This,” to a traditional arrangement of “Jingle Bells,” and many other favourite holiday carols. We were privileged to share our music with a delightful group of children who enthusiastically sang along with us. It is always joyous to see children responding to music through smiles, laughter, singing, or even dance as you see here! 

Our next performance was at South City International School where they hosted children from several local schools and NGOs. As you can see, it was a full house! The students were seated all around us, which allowed for a more intimate and personal setting in contrast with performing from an elevated stage. This atmosphere helped engage the students and encourage their participation. During our performance students tested their acting skills, practiced bowing, and even marched and swayed with the rhythm of the music which made for a memorable and lovely experience. Our concert taught the students, many of whom were exposed to Western classical music for the first time, that the music is accessible, as evidenced by their smiles and laughter. Shamlu Dudeja of SHE (Self Help Enterprise)  loaned us these beautiful Kantha stitched saris.

On December 20th, Jennifer and I made our second appearance (our first was in 2014) at the Park Street Christmas Festival. This week long event included a wide variety of groups performing throughout the Festival. Once again, the Festival attracted a sizeable crowd. Kolkata Classics is so fortunate to have the talented Jyoti Sachdev as a fashion sponsor. I absolutely loved the gold and black dress she designed for me to wear. Singing both holiday pieces and Broadway standards amidst the beautifully lit park really felt like Christmas. In this last photo, Jenny and I are goofing off singing along to a Beyoncé tune that was playing over the loudspeaker.

Kolkata Classics gives back to the community through sponsoring a health fair at Uttam Mancha in Kalighat. Jennifer’s boundless energy and tireless efforts to make a difference in peoples’ lives is inspiring. I’m so proud to be part of an organization that not only lifts peoples’ spirits through sharing music, but also gives back to the community by providing medical services to local women and children who are victims of human trafficking. It was a pleasure having children from New Light, Future Hope, and Apne Aap enjoying the concert in the theatre, many of whom participated by singing or dancing on stage after we performed.

I think I had the most fun performing with Jenny at Quest Mall on Christmas Day. In the U.S. very few businesses are open on Christmas Day, but Kolkata was hustling and bustling. It was such a pleasure to see such a diverse audience stop to enjoy the holiday music, take a “selfie,” or have their children pose for a photo with us. Jingle Bells, a tune everyone seems to know and love, proved to be a crowd favourite as we had overwhelming audience participation during our performance. This show reminded me that music connects us all, regardless of ethnicity, religion, geography, socio-economic status, disability, age, or gender, and sharing it can play an important role in spreading joy and peace. It is a tangible reminder that our basic humanity is a shared experience. 

We were excited for such a large turnout at the beautiful Park Hotel’s Rosewood Hall which caused us to delay our start time so more seating could be added. Wearing a beautiful Jyoti Sachdev original sari in royal blue and gold, I sang many gorgeous pieces that were relatively new to my repertoire and several well known standards that were familiar to many in our audience. It is always a great joy to greet people after a concert to learn about them and about what music they enjoyed. Getting to know the people of Kolkata created memories I will value forever and made me feel like I really got to know the city in a way I never could have as a tourist. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to visit Kolkata a second time.

Our last concert was at the Beldih Club in Jamshedpur. One of the organization’s generous sponsors this season is Tata Steel. They were kind enough to fly us on a company plane to Jamshedpur and house us at the Beldih Club for a night. And their hospitality included one of the best meals I had during my time in India. Those who know me know I get excited about good food, and India doesn’t disappoint. The food is always full of flavour, and often heat! I love looking at, smelling, and tasting all of the many vegetarian dishes (Next to the Beldih Club photo is me eying some food at a Rajasthani festival we attended). We were each given a beautiful wall hanging that I can’t wait to display in my living room.

The day before I was to return home, we had an invitation to the Royal Calcutta Turf Club for the races on New Year’s Day. This was a vibrant affair filled with people from all walks of life and the perfect way to celebrate the New Year. I got to cross paths with Bollywood star Rituparna Sengupta and the British Deputy High Commissioner, Bruce Bucknell, wow!


11 December – Christmas Bazaar at the German Consulate

15 December – South City International School

20 December – Park Street Christmas Festival

23 December – Health Fair and Concert at Uttam Mancha, Kalighat

25 December – Quest Mall

26 December – The Park Kolkata

29 December – Beldih Club Jamshedpur