Musician on a Mission

Posted on August 29, 2011


How significant is western classical music in India? Jean-François Gonzales-Hamilton is here to find out.

We are born to run, to shout, to love, but we are not born to play an instrument. Those skills aren’t innate, and when we learn to play the piano or the violin, we slip into a default mode dictated by our bodies. Jean-François Gonzales-Hamilton believes that the role of a teacher is to release the student from the tyranny of these defaults – the way the hand is positioned, for instance. In Bengaluru, Gonzales-Hamilton observed two talented cellists, a boy and a girl, both about 12 years old. He advised them about their defaults, and then about “subtle things, like phrasing and construction and finding a homogenous balance between fingered and open-string playing so that the slide between notes is not audible.” He was surprised to see that they understood what he said and were able to make changes to their playing accordingly.

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Gonzales-Hamilton’s surprise arose from his unfamiliarity with the western classical music scene in India. He has been Professor of Chamber Music at the Versailles National Conservatory since October 1978, and in these 33 years, he has taught several students from Asia – Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean, Chinese, but not a single Indian student. That might explain his presence in the country – with stops, so far, in Bengaluru, Mumbai and now Chennai, where he has scheduled meetings with Madhav Chari, VS Narasimhan, Musee Musicals, the Madras Chamber Orchestra, and AR Rahman’s KM Music Conservatory – but he is also on what he likes to term a “mission” on behalf of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to explore the western classical music scene in India and support its sustenance through links between the two countries. Gonzales-Hamilton’s interest isn’t just professorial – he is also a supremely regarded violinist, having studied at several conservatories and authored a violin method (with transcriptions issued for the viola).

Gonzales-Hamilton was a seven-and-a-half-year-old in Algiers when his father, an officer in the army, brought home a record player and a stack of records. “I was listening to music all the time, and I slowly got the idea that you could not just listen to music but actually play it,” he says. “The symphonies of Beethoven were the main cause for my becoming a musician.” A year later, he began learning the violin and then the trumpet. “Life goes by so fast and we have so little time, so I dropped the trumpet eventually,” he says, “though it did teach me a lot about breathing and phrasing.” At 16, looking for another teacher, he approached a friend’s mother, a violinist. She asked him to play something, and he played Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole. She complained that his slides were very evident. “That was a very important event in my artistic journey. She drew my attention to something I’d been unaware of.” Those young cellists in Bengaluru must have felt something similar.

When Gonzales-Hamilton arrived at Versailles at 18, he went to the conservatory where a teacher, impressed by his gifts, told his father to take him out of school so that he could be made a violinist. But his father wanted him to finish school, and afterwards, this teacher refused to take on the student whose parent had spurned a generous offer. Gonzales-Hamilton presented himself before another teacher, and he did so well that the first teacher took him back. Gonzales-Hamilton remembers that they fought all the time, because the teacher wanted the student to play like him, while the student wanted to find his own path. “Most people end up repeating what their teacher did, and that teacher repeats what his teacher did, and it goes back on and on till Jesus Christ,” says Gonzales-Hamilton, who did not want to be one of those musicians. After leaving the conservatory, he began to play in orchestras.

But that didn’t last very long. “It’s difficult to have a boss who is stupid or ignorant or both,” says Gonzales-Hamilton, and though he was earning a lot of money, his dissatisfaction with his conductors made him leave to become his own boss. He became a conductor. He had already studied conducting, so the transition wasn’t too difficult, and from 1977 to 1989, he conducted 699 concerts. “One less than 700, so it’s easy to remember,” he says. Why so many? Because, he says, “Music is my passion, and I thought that if my name was on the marquee all the time, I would be invited by the New York Philharmonic.” But he soon realised that burnout was not the way to becoming Bernstein. He has since slowed down. He took time off to publish music and he continued to teach. Gradually, he began conducting again.

Gonzales-Hamilton remembers his most memorable concert, the one he conducted in the presence of the French President and the German Chancellor in 1983, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of a cooperation treaty. On the programme were compositions from both countries, a suite by Jean-Philippe Rameau and the Brahms Requiem. The latter is Gonzales-Hamilton’s “desert-island composer, because I heard him very early in life, when I was probably eight. His music is so rich. He’s the grandmaster of the counterpoint. He’s one of the rare composers who would have three themes in a single page of music, while Beethoven, who I treasure almost as much, would have as many themes in an entire movement.” Gonzales-Hamilton is very interested in the traditional music of Asia, though he confesses to knowing more about Chinese and Japanese music. His mission here, therefore, is to learn more about Indian music too.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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