Many associate choir groups with just carolling, Sunday morning hymns in churches, or Christmas festivities. Capital City Minstrels, the Delhi-based international choir group, stand as a reminder of why that’s a mistake. Over the almost three decades of its existence, the choir group have performed diverse pieces, from jazz to classical, both in India and abroad. This weekend, they are back in Delhi with their annual summer performance, an ambitious set including French composer Gabriel Faure’s Requiem.
Founded in 1994 by Zohra Shaw, Capital City Minstrels today has around 60 members, aged from 18 to 85. From students to diplomats, the group's members are diverse and all come together every year to present a musical evening. This summer, they are performing Gabriel Faure's Requiem and more music for the soul, featuring his choral masterpiece, the seven-section Requiem. The program will be conducted by Nadezda Balyan, and accompanied by pianist Nise Meruno and cellist Arina Sharma.
Requiem, composed between 1887 and 1890, is traditionally a lament for the departed but Faure’s composition focused on the peaceful and fear-free nature of death. Talking about why they chose it, Balyan tells Lounge, “It’s a beautiful piece and usually it is sung in lamentation, at funerals. However, Faure said that it’s a piece that gives hope because death is not dark, it’s a time when the heaviness that often comes with life is released and we see the light.”
Music has been a lifelong companion for Balyan. When she was six, she started learning the piano, joined music school the next year, and ever since, singing has been a part of who she is. She moved from Russia to India about a decade ago and currently sings and conducts with the Delhi Chamber Choir. This will be the second time Balyan will conduct the Capital City Minstrels (CCM). “This has been a rewarding experience," Balyan says. "Teaching a classical piece like Requiem is not easy compared to contemporary songs. Classical singing requires training, but I was surprised to see how well the group did, understanding the notes intricately and they did all this while having fun, which is important.” The Russian musician is one of about 15 conductors the group has had in 29 years.
Mandira Ahuja, who has been part of the CCM since 2019, says she hasn’t seen a choir in Delhi put up a classical music performance like this before. She calls it an exciting opportunity. “This has been challenging but mostly I have been awestruck by everyone in the group," Ahuja says. "At times during rehearsal, I go quiet to just listen to the amazing music that coming out."
Across India, there are diverse choir groups that have been around for decades that celebrate music, harmony, and a sense of belongingness. “I've got to meet different people from different walks of life, and we have built a community that is very tight-knit, bound together by a common passion. It also gives a sense of purpose and encourages people to put out their talent,” says Ahuja.
The CCM have a summer and fall season, each ending with a concert and a special performance during Christmas. Over the years, the choir, under its varied conductors, have performed jazz, pop, and Bollywood numbers, including music by AR Rahman that was arranged for the choir, and songs in regional Indian languages, German and French.
Balyan has brought in her expertise in classical music this summer for the concert, which will be a choral masterpiece complemented by some contemporary pieces.
The transition from classical music to contemporary songs will be through Ave Maria (Hail Mary), which is a recognisable tune—one of Franz Schubert’s most popular works. The group’s soprano soloist, Aroma Mathews, will sing Polish composer Michael Lorenc’s contemporary arrangement of Ave Maria. This will be followed by Amazing Grace which will be sung by tenor soloist, Neeraj Devraj. With words by English Poet, John Newton, Amazing Grace, is associated with the message of forgiveness and redemption.
Two songs that Ahuja is looking forward to singing are Abun D’Bash Maiyo (Our Father) and You Raise Me Up. The former, which is also the last song of the performance, is a prayer in the Syriac dialect of Aramaic, which has inspired musicians across the world. This beautiful composition will be sung with no musical embellishments, just about 60 members of the groups creating filling the space with melodious elements.
The Minstrels will perform at Kamani Auditorium, Copernicus Marg, New Delhi on 19 May at 7:30 PM.