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Zane Dalal’s notes on conducting

  • The Symphony Orchestra of India’s associate music director answers the all important question: 'What does a conductor really do?'
  • Dalal was born and educated in England to Parsi parents and considers Zubin Mehta a family friend and mentor

Zane Dalal considers Zubin Mehta a mentor.
Zane Dalal considers Zubin Mehta a mentor. (Photo: NCPA)

To mark 50 prodigious years, the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) hosted a three-day festival last weekend. On the opening night, the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) presented a gala concert featuring choirs from across the country and dancers from the Abay Kazakh State Academic Opera And Ballet Theatre. The ballet dancers were truly extraordinary but it was conductor Zane Dalal’s movements on stage that had me in thrall. At one point, during Giuseppe Verdi’s IlTrovatore, I am certain I saw him give fist bumps to the male choir.

Later, I met Dalal in an office room at the NCPA. The walls were taken up with portraits of illustrious conductors who have been associated with the centre, including Dalal, who is SOI’s associate music director. In his portrait, he’s holding a small baton—wood with a cork tip. But early into our conversation, Dalal makes a startling revelation. “I am considering losing the baton," he says. “And working with my hands."

On opening night, he seemed to have been tap dancing, swinging, and conducting with full body rhythm, I tell him. Dalal laughs but is sombre while taking in questions: How different will a concert really be if the conductor fails to show up? Are digital earpieces likely to replace human conductors soon? Is he amused by the fact that a top orchestra-related question on Google is “What does a conductor really do?"

“In the very basic sense, what a conductor does is he’s beating time," explains Dalal. “A musician playing on one side of the stage would be unable to hear the other side…. Also, they don’t have an idea of how they sound together. I am the only one with the whole chart, they only have their own."

It’s not all pragmatism. Dalal , 55, brims with poetic analogies. He speaks of the phenomenology of sound and the idea of spiritual communication between the conductor and the orchestra. Music is a live organism, he tells me. “Hold it too tight and you can suffocate it and hold it too loose and you have no control," he says. “We are artists, painting in sound where the canvas is time." He has often told his orchestra that they shouldn’t presume that they are creating the sound in that moment. “I tell them to imagine that the sound is already in the ether and they are bringing it to the audience…we are guardians of something that is not ours."

Dalal is keen to underline the importance of trust between the conductor and orchestra. They must trust that what you are saying makes them better. “I must know what I want, what I am asking for and how to create a sound on a particular instrument—even if I don’t know how to play it," he says.

When I ask about his favourite gestures—the fist bump is on my mind—Dalal shows me a few but shares that sometimes, human gestures fall short. “How do you collect power from everybody just by looking into their eyes…when that happens, that moment on stage, it’s earth-shattering," he says. A question often posed to conductors is that the musicians don’t seem to be looking at them. “True, they don’t look at you all at once but only when they choose to individually. While they are playing, they have an internal rhythm and they will check in peripherally. But the moment they check in they must know where they are by looking at my hands," explains Dalal.

Dalal was born and educated in England to Parsi parents. Awarded an Organ scholarship to Oxford, he went on to study in the US and was conducting in Los Angeles when an invitation from Khushroo Suntook, NCPA chairperson, brought him to Mumbai in 2006 as SOI’s resident conductor. This was only a few months after Suntook co-founded it along with the Kazakh violinist Marat Bisengaliev, who continues to be SOI’s music director. Dalal was excited at the prospect of building something new. Unlike Zubin Mehta, the other illustrious Parsi conductor on the global stage, he had no connection to the city, though he “cooks the food".

A question that visibly (and frequently) irritates him is why there aren’t enough Indian musicians in the SOI. “Music is a meritocracy just like winning a cricket game. You do a great disservice to a country and a nation by having a brown face photo op if the standard is not there…. The Indians would be there if there was an advance study discipline and until those conservatories with a 200-year history exist in the country that question may not be asked," he says.

“Everywhere you go, whether it’s Berlin, Moscow or the US, orchestras are made up of different nationalities…the positions are too coveted so they go to the best. Your job is not to make sure that the silly question is answered but that Beethoven is answered." Suntook, Bisengaliev and Dalal, however, haven’t ignored the sentiment behind the question. They started a music school in 2012 to feed young musicians into their ranks.

There is so much power vested in the conductor during a performance, so much glamour and authority, that I ask him about the cult of the conductor: an idea increasingly popular these days with conductors and opera singers being called “op stars" and with TV shows such as Mozart In The Jungle (with Gael García Bernal playing a maverick conductor). “What you cannot guarantee is that the person won’t be a megalomanic lunatic," says Dalal, pointing out that through the 1920s-1950s, conductors could walk into rehearsals and fire musicians. The idea of unions came up after that. “There will always be people who can’t get through the day without proving they can stand on someone." He recalls Fritz Reiner of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who was known for his ruthless elimination of any musician who displeased him. “Now it’s more like a first among equals dynamic," he adds.

Things are coming full circle for Dalal. After he led the SOI on their first Europe tour in 2016, in February 2019 they embarked on their first tour of the UK.

His personal favourite composers are Bach (“his music is a mathematical masterpiece") and Bruckner (“deep, rich string sound"). But inspiration comes from closer home. Mehta, he shares, is a close family friend. They met for the first time in 1978. “He has been part of my musical experience my whole life and been wonderfully generous with his time," says Dalal, adding that Mehta wrote him a letter of recommendation in 1995 after hearing him conduct his dad’s (Mehli Mehta’s) orchestra at the American Youth Symphony. Dalal might have had many mentors, but none may ever come as close as a fellow Parsi whose city he now plays for.

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