Musical history was made at Symphony Hall on Tuesday, when for the first time a leading Indian vocalist appeared on stage with a major symphony orchestra in a concert of Bollywood classics.
The first live collaboration between Sonu Niigaam and the CBSO – they have recorded most of this repertoire for a recently released CD, but made their respective contributions on different continents – attracted a capacity and almost exclusively Asian audience which was in no way inhibited in expressing its obvious enthusiasm.
While Niigaam was greeted like the star he evidently is, and the popularity of many of the songs was demonstrated by the cheers and applause that greeted their opening bars, it was also heartwarming to see the warmth of the reception for the CBSO and conductor Michael Seal.
Their collaboration should demonstrate, if we haven’t already noticed, that behind Bollywood’s kitsch stereotype there lies a treasury of melodic songs whose qualities transcend language and cultural difference. This is particularly true when they are set against Tim Pottier’s remarkably rich orchestrations. These are based on original recordings, mainly from the 1960s and 1970s, by India’s most celebrated “playback” singer, Mohammed Rafi, but it seems Pottier’s own compositional input has been substantial.
Niigaam, who is regarded as something of an heir to Rafi (he first performed a Rafi song on stage, with his father, at the age of three), opened the concert by leading a silent tribute to the master, the anniversary of whose death in 1980 falls on July 31.
Seeming slightly bemused but unmistakably excited to be fronting a 75-piece orchestra, Nigaam is an appealingly unaffected superstar who waved to his fans between verses and even posed to be photographed by a young woman who had the self-confidence to leave her seat and walk to the front of the stage.
Highlights included the magical Dil Ke Jharoke Mein and the sublime duet Mujhe Teri Mohabbat Ka Sahara, one of several numbers on which Niigaam was joined by the female singer Gunjan. The grand climax, perhaps inevitably, was the resounding An Evening in Paris, changed to An Evening in Birmingham in honour of the occasion.
The third of this week’s concerts, at the London Coliseum, is being recorded for future broadcast on BBCTV as well as in India and the United States. The next stop surely has to be The Proms.